Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through Feb. 2009


ALTTEXT

Robert Dowd — Pop Art Money — See Jan.17 listing

DECEMBER

Fri., Dec. 12
“Laemmle Through the Decades: 1938-2008, 70 Years in 7 Days.” It must have been an extraordinarily difficult task to select only seven films to represent the rich and diverse history of the Laemmle Theatres chain. But someone did it. For the next week, Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles will screen the seven most iconic foreign-language films to have graced the company’s silver screens, each one representing a different decade of its existence. The lineup includes “Children of Paradise” (1945, France), “La Strada” (1954, Italy), “Jules & Jim” (1962, France), “The Conformist” (1970, Italy, France and West Germany), “Fanny & Alexander” (1982, Sweden), “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988, Spain) and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001, Mexico). Films will screen several times a day. Through Dec. 18. $7-$10. Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 477-5581. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ecogift.com.

Sat., Dec. 13
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” With a long list of Top 40 favorites, such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand by Me” and “On Broadway,” this musical mishmash of Leiber and Stoller hits is ideally jubilant for the holiday season. Since its 1995 premiere on Broadway, the 39-song revue has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, won a Grammy Award for the legendary duo’s songs and featured special appearances by megastars such as Gladys Knight, Gloria Gaynor and Rick Springfield. Starring in this NoHo production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” are DeLee Lively, Robert Torti and a host of other talented stage veterans. Special performances include tonight’s opening night gala and two New Year’s Eve shows, one with a champagne reception, the other followed by an all-out party with the cast. 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. Through Jan. 4. $25-$150. El Portal Theatre, Mainstage, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 508-4200. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.benjamintrigano.com.

Sat., Dec. 13
“Moonlight Rollerway Holiday Jubilee.” Charles Phoenix is addicted to thrift store shopping. Luckily for us, Phoenix has put together a collection of the goodies he has found. Now, Moonlight Rollerway, which calls itself Southern California’s last classic roller rink, is presenting Phoenix and his quirky, retro holiday slide show. The viewing event will be followed by a roller-skating revue spectacular, featuring 75 championship skaters and celebrating the entire year’s holidays, including Cinco de Mayo and Valentine’s Day. Snacks and an after-show skating party are included. 8 p.m. Also, Dec. 14 at 3 p.m. $35. Moonlight Rollerway, 5110 San Fernando Road, Glendale. (818) 241-3630. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.mbfala.com.

Sun., Dec. 14
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus Annual Winter Concert. There is an Academy Award-nominated documentary about this choir. It has toured Brazil, China, Italy and Poland, among other nations. And since its inception in 1986, the chorus has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Approximately 250 talented and dedicated children between the ages of 8 and 12 make up the LACC. The angelic voices of these preteen choristers will bring to life works by composers such as Aaron Copland, Pablo Casals, Randall Thompson and J.S. Bach in a winter concert inspired by literary luminaries Robert Frost, William Shakespeare and others. The program follows the 2008-2009 season theme, “The Poet Sings,” and features a varied selection of classical, folk and contemporary pieces. 7 p.m. $24-$42. Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 793-4231. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lamoth.org.

Mon., Dec. 15
Reel Talk: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Stephen Farber, film critic for Hollywood Life magazine and The Hollywood Reporter, has been treating audiences to sneak previews of the industry’s hottest films for more than 25 years. The veteran film buff concludes this year’s preview series with a fascinating film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who is born in his 80s and ages backward. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, the odd tale is already making waves and is set to hit theaters during prime-time movie-watching season, Christmas. The screening will be followed by a discussion with members of the filmmaking team, including Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West. 7 p.m. $20. Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lacma.org.

Tue., Dec. 16
Carrie Fisher presents and signs “Wishful Drinking.” It’s not easy being an action figure before you can legally drink a beer, but that didn’t stop Princess Leia from having one, or two, or many more. Fisher’s first memoir, adapted from her one-woman stage show, is a revealing look at her childhood as a product of “Hollywood in-breeding” and her adulthood in the shadow of “Star Wars.” After electroshock therapy, marrying, divorcing then dating Paul Simon, a drug addition and a bipolar disorder, Fisher still manages to take an ironic and humorous survey of her bizarre life. Meet Fisher and get a copy of her book signed at this WeHo book haven. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Fri., Dec. 19
“Peter Pan.” Tinkerbell, Captain Hook, pirates, Indians — we know the cast of characters well. But how many of us have actually seen a full production of J.M. Barrie’s classic fantasy play, “Peter Pan” — especially one that features the complete musical score by Leonard Bernstein? Composer Alexander Frey — who helped reconstruct portions of Bernstein’s score that had been previously lost for a special CD — is flying in from Berlin to conduct the live orchestra. 7 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Dec. 28. $30-$70; $10 (seniors and students). Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara. (805) 963-0761. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Wed., Dec. 24
“49th Annual Los Angeles County Holiday Celebration.” Los Angeles’ biggest holiday show, featuring 45 groups and 1,200 performers, is a proud tradition — and it’s absolutely free! Running approximately six hours, the holiday extravaganza features the county’s cultural diversity. This year’s highlights include hip-hop group Antics Performances, South Bay Ballet and Grammy-nominated Lisa Haley and the Zydekats. Audiences will have the opportunity to listen to sounds and see sights from the world over, including Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. For those of you who can’t make it to see the event in person, KCET-TV will also be airing the event live. Sponsored by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and produced by the County Arts Commission. 3-9 p.m. Free. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3099. http:www.holidaycelebration.org.

Don’t cut support to innovative nonprofits


From New York to Los Angeles to San Francisco, the impact of the global financial crisis feels like an eerie parallel to the days after Sept. 11. No one knows whether the acute phase is over or whether there will be further shocks. For some, little has changed; for others, life will never be the same. Everyone knows someone who has been directly affected.

Our major institutions are struggling to adjust, react, prepare but most of all to respond to those most harmed. News outlets strive to explain and advise; houses of worship have added services; social service agencies brace for increased demand even as they anticipate reduced charitable and government support. Each organization is focused on what it can do to minimize and mitigate the effects of the crisis on our city, our country and our world.

Amid this outpouring of effort, we have been dismayed by intimations, in the Jewish media and elsewhere, that smaller, newer nonprofit organizations will and perhaps ought to lose funding support in order to allocate more to immediate concerns: a warm meal, a place to stay, income stabilization. While we agree that protecting the most fragile is key, we disagree with this last-hired, first-fired funding mentality.

The argument against the new nonprofits is both simple and disingenuous. The simple argument is that they are risky investments, ephemeral champions of the latest passing fads. The disingenuous argument is that these innovators are self-indulgent narcissists, insubstantial and erosive of the communal fabric. These arguments are not only wrong, they are counterproductive.

Far from risky ventures, new start-ups like Darkhei Noam, Hadar, Jewish Milestones, IKAR and the Progressive Jewish Alliance actually are fulfilling the promise of engaging a new generation of Jews in their own idiom and on their own terms. It is this generation’s connection to Judaism that ultimately will determine the future of Jewish life and of its larger institutions. They build innovative new minyanim and educate young leaders who in turn will strengthen their communities. They develop, test and promote new models of community involvement that will be the foundation for generations to come.

From Hazon to Jewish Mosaic to Matan to Sharsheret, they use new tools and methods to promote environmental responsibility, ensure our community welcomes Jews of all backgrounds, widen the reach of special education and put resources into the hands of those afflicted with deadly diseases — all missions at heightened risk in the period of social and economic turmoil we are entering.

While the big boys debate scalpels and hatchets, these new start-ups quietly perform laparoscopies without cutting open the patient. Bootstrapped together with all the advantages of today’s cost-saving technologies that many established Jewish organizations have yet to discover, these start-ups are models of industry and investment that will help America emerge from recession. They can feed for a year on what their larger brethren consume in an hour. They are lean, staffed more austerely than their older, bigger peers and subsist by sweat equity donated by those for whom they mean a great deal.

Putting the attention on new start-ups distracts us from asking the tough questions of our most venerable institutions, many of which have lost sight of their original missions in the struggle for institutional survival.

But these start-ups are also fragile, without reserves to fall back on, and do not yet possess long-term funding relationships to be called upon in times of crisis. They lack the confidence and reputation — and the sheer seniority — conferred on larger nonprofits by decades of service. Questioning the viability, merit or necessity of nascent nonprofit organizations risks becoming self-fulfilling. Moreover, it’s unfair to do so without also challenging the unquestioned assumptions governing larger nonprofits.

New ventures are essential to our recovery and are ideal places for funders to invest to stabilize the community. Individual or institutional funders seeking ways to make fewer dollars go further should take a closer look at the group of emerging nonprofit organizations ready to rise to the occasion if given a chance. These new groups do far more than put on hip-hop concerts and publish risqué magazines. From a communal investment perspective, these organizations provide tremendous value.

Just as after Sept. 11, the priority is on rebuilding — not only our portfolios but also our souls. We must succor those re-examining their values and goals, and support those for whom economic distress leads to personal distress. Financial crisis is often the mother of religious crisis, during which the quest for meaning becomes not only more potent but more critical. It is precisely in trying times that we must focus on efforts that can best distill and transmit the essence of Jewish values in today’s complex and decentralized world.

The age of an organization doesn’t correlate to the significance of its mission. In 1798, when our new nation faced a grave economic and political threat from France, John Adams summoned leaders of each of the nation’s diverse faiths to organize “a day of solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer,” during which citizens were asked to pray “that our country may be protected from all the dangers which threaten it.” The message was clear — strengthening committed communities strengthens our nation.

The new groups formed by our most gifted social entrepreneurs are just such committed communities — some religious and others not — and now is the hour when they can do their finest work.

Shawn Landres is the CEO of Jumpstart, a thinkubator for sustainable Jewish innovation in Los Angeles. Toby E. Rubin is the founder/CEO of UpStart Bay Area, igniting Jewish ideas and supporting Jewish start-ups in the San Francisco Bay Area. Martin Kaminer is the New York-based chair of the board of Bikkurim: An Incubator for New Jewish Ideas.

Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through November 2008


SEPTEMBER

Fri., Sept. 12
“A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People.” Angelenos can explore the legacy of one of the Catholic Church’s most beloved popes in a new Skirball Cultural Center exhibition. Through artifacts, photographs and audiovisual recordings that first appeared at Cincinnati’s Xavier University only weeks after the pope’s death in 2005, visitors can explore the life of Pope John Paul II and the historical and personal circumstances that led him to aggressively reach out to Jews worldwide. Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to enter a synagogue, recognize the State of Israel and formally apologize for the Catholic Church’s past treatment of the Jewish people. The Skirball will also offer several public programs related to the exhibition: an adult-education course on “Jesus and Judaism” and film adaptations of biblical epics, among others. Through Jan. 4. $10 (general admission), free to all on Thursdays. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.thenewlatc.com.

Sat., Sept. 13
“Speech & Debate.” The town is Salem, Ore., and, as in countless other American cities, teenagers are on the prowl for like-minded adolescents via the Internet. However, the three teenagers who find one another in “Speech & Debate” don’t just bond over music, books and movies, but are linked through a sex scandal that has rocked their community. The three adolescent misfits do what anyone else would to get to the bottom of the scandal: form their school’s first speech and debate team. Check out the West Coast premiere of the play, which critics are calling “flat-out funny.” 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Through Oct. 26. $22-$28. The Blank Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 661-9827. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.plays411.com/ragtime.

Sat., Sept. 13
Camarillo Art & Jazz Festival. Camarillo is offering visitors a one-day extravaganza filled with music, artists and gourmet food, all culminating in an evening concert under the stars. The 2008 Camarillo Art & Jazz Festival will include gospel and bluegrass music, a farmers’ market and more than 50 artists showcasing their work. By evening, retro-band Royal Crown Revue will warm the stage for a secret, Grammy-nominated headliner. 8 a.m. (farmers’ market), 10 a.m. (music and art walk). $20-$60. 2400 Ventura Blvd., Old Town Camarillo. (805) 484-4383. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.apla.org.

Fri., Sept. 19
“Back Back Back” at The Old Globe. There’s nothing poignant about professional athletes using steroids. Or is there? Old Globe playwright-in-residence Itamar Moses delves into the controversial topic and takes the audience beyond the newspaper headlines and congressional hearings to the sanctuary of sports — the locker room. With humor and insight, Moses unfolds the stories of three major league baseball players who struggle to compete in the unforgiving world of professional sports, as well as balance their personal lives and professional images. The up-and-coming playwright has “clearly demonstrated tremendous talent along with a willingness to tackle complex ideas in his plays,” said The Globe’s Executive Producer Lou Spisto. Moses’ other works include “The Four of Us,” which won the San Diego Critics’ Circle Best New Play Award last year and “Bach at Leipzig.” 8 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Oct. 26. $42-$59. Old Globe Arena Theatre, James S. Copley Auditorium, San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park, San Diego. (619) 234-5623. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.nhm.org.

Sun., Sept. 21
KCRW’S World Festival. A remarkable, eclectic lineup marks the last week of KCRW’s World Music Festival. Ozomatli toured the world, engaging audiences with its blend of Latin-, rock- and hip-hop-infused music, as well as its anti-war and human rights advocacy. The multiethnic group headlines this special night at the Hollywood Bowl, along with Michael Franti, a former member of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and his latest band Spearhead. Mexican singer Lila Downs as well as Tijuana’s premiere electronic band, Nortec Collective and its members Bostich and Fussible, will make it impossible for anyone not to get something out of the mix. If you haven’t had the chance to catch this spectacular summer concert series, don’t miss this last opportunity. 7 p.m. $10-$96. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (323) 850-2000. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lfla.org/aloud.

Wed., Sept. 24
Brad Meltzer signs “Book of Lies.” The New York Times best-selling mystery writer is back with a riveting new thriller that links the Cain and Abel story with the creation of Superman. Young Jerry Siegel dreamed up a bulletproof super man in 1932 when his father was shot to death. It may sound like a strange plotline, but trust Meltzer, who has written six other acclaimed page-turners as well as comic books and television shows, to produce a great read. The novel is already receiving major buzz and you can get in on the action in a variety of ways: By watching the trailer on Brad Meltzer’s Web site (yes, the book has a movie trailer), listening to the book’s soundtrack (yes, the book has a soundtrack) and by coming to a reading and book signing by the author. 7:30-9 p.m. Free. Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 380-1636. ” target=”_blank”>http://arts.pepperdine.edu.

Sat., Sept. 27
“Skinny Bitch: A Bun in the Oven.” If there is one thing that doesn’t ever get old, it’s mocking our own culture. Authors Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin do just that in their newly released “Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven,” a sequel of sorts to their best-selling cookbook “Skinny Bitch.” The book is a guaranteed laugh riot and today’s in-store reading and signing could offer a sassy twist as the two authors show up in the flesh to dish about expecting mothers. And don’t be fooled, just because the subjects of this book are in a more fragile state of mind, Freedman and Barnouin refuse to make any exceptions to their insightful and illuminating critiques. 2 p.m. $14.95 (book price). Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.jamescolemanfineart.com.

Sat., Sept. 27
“Jack’s Third Show.” Long hair, dramatic eye shadow and electric guitars return for an ’80s afternoon. Billed as a benefit for autism education, radio station JACK-FM stages an edgy blend of retro and new wave rockers. Billy Idol joins Blondie, The Psychedelic Furs and Devo for a musical bash that will have you dancing all day long. 2 p.m. $29-$89. Verizon Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. (213) 480-3232. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.931jackfm.com.

Sat., Sept. 27
Museum Day. Art and cultural institutions are hoping to attract folks from all walks of life by making them an offer that’s hard to refuse: free admission to museums across Southern California. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, this event gives art lovers and art novices alike the opportunity to visit venues from the Getty Center to the Craft and Folk Art Museum, free of charge. Natural history and science museums, like the California Science Center are also participating in the event. Regular parking fees do apply and advance reservations are recommended for some exhibitions. For a complete list of participating museums, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.museumsla.org/news/asp.

Sat., Sept. 27
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 40th Season Opening Gala. L.A. Chamber Orchestra’s first musical director, Sir Neville Marriner, will conduct its current director, Jeffrey Kahane, in a piano solo to celebrate its 40th year. A symbolic bridge between the orchestra’s past and its future, expect to hear classical masters Beethoven, Schumann and Stravinsky, followed by dinner, dancing and a live auction for patrons. 6 p.m. $35-$125 (concert only), $750 (full package). The Ambassador Auditorium, 131 S. Saint John Ave., Pasadena. (213) 622-7001, ext. 215.

Urban love story brings Berlin’s past to the present


A scene in Anna Winger’s novel, “This Must Be the Place” (Riverhead), is reminiscent of the Chasidic story about people who no longer remember the way to pray nor the words, yet somehow simply remember the instinct to pray. Two friends descend into a storage area in their Berlin building that had once been a secret Hebrew school for young people in hiding. They light memorial candles for their own lost relatives and, aware that they don’t know Hebrew prayers, instead sing out the songs they know with gusto.

Set in December 2001, “This Must Be the Place” is an urban novel, a love story, a tale of searching for one’s place. There’s much musing about Germans and Jews, about the past and about memory and identity. Many Berliners who have never been to New York City wear I LOVE NY T-shirts in solidarity with the city after Sept. 11.

Winger, an American who has lived in Berlin for the last five years, grew up in Cambridge, Mass., along with long periods in Kenya and Mexico, as well as New York City. The daughter of Harvard anthropologists, she picked up their skills of observation, which she has fine-tuned in her work as a professional photographer and in this beautifully written fictional debut.

The novel traces the friendship of Hope, an American woman who followed her workaholic husband to Berlin shortly after a private tragedy and the events of Sept. 11, and Walter, a German actor who lives in an identical apartment in the same building. Once quite well known, Walter, who’s now in his 40s and has lost his hair and gained weight, is the voice of Tom Cruise in German. He has just been dumped by his much younger girlfriend, an actress, and he dreams of America.

Their 90-year-old building, with its fading grandeur, is in a once-elegant and now-gentrifying section of what had been West Berlin. Hints of the building’s history and of the Jewish families who once lived there are whispered about, hidden under peeling layers of wallpaper.

“Most Germans of my generation would love to be Jewish,” Walter tells Hope. “Even just a little. People are always coming up with a Jewish great-grandmother out of the blue…. Everyone wants to identify with the oppressed, not the oppressors, to relieve their own inherited guilt. If you ask, almost everyone here will claim that their own family had nothing to do with the Holocaust, that they were hiding Jews in the basement, or in the attic, or under the bed.”

Hope’s husband, Dave, who is Jewish, admits that he likes his Germans guilty. As he says, “They’re nice to me now.”

In an interview, Winger speaks of her unexpected love of Berlin and believes that this is the best moment to live there.

“It’s a city with a complicated history — where you choose how you interact with history every day,” she said, adding, “The amazing thing about Berlin is that in so many ways it’s a Jewish city.”

She moved there to join her husband, a German-born television and film producer. When she first met him, about a decade before they started dating, she said that “the idea of being with a German was not something I took seriously. It was so off the charts, not part of my world.”

But when she finally visited Berlin, their friendship changed. Much to her surprise, she was struck by how familiar his world seemed to her.

“Everything about the country really surprised me. You hear only negative things in Jewish America. Actually, the culture is intensely intellectual. People are more open than expected; it’s very urban, welcoming.”

She began writing the novel when she was pregnant with their daughter; at the time she could no longer travel extensively as she had for her photographic work. In some ways, the novel is an answer to the many questions she was thinking about as an American Jew living in Berlin — and an attempt to explain to her daughter, “a child with mixed heritage, everything that happened in the place where she was born.”

Winger’s own Jewish identity has evolved in her years as a Berliner. While living in New York, being American and Jewish seemed so intertwined that she didn’t think much about it. In Berlin, she feels a large responsibility to celebrate Jewish holidays with her friends and, in fact, wrote about her eclectic Passover seder in The New York Times.

In Berlin, she has never experienced anti-Semitism and instead finds the opposite: a high level of sincere interest among Germans in Judaism.

“They’re curious in a positive way,” she said. “You are more likely to have a negative experience in an American yacht club than in Berlin. Of that I’m certain.”

She added, “The fact that they have learned from their mistakes is integral to what makes Berlin so welcoming.” In general, she sees people as “post-guilt enlightened, well educated about Jewish subjects. They feel responsible to make their country a better place and that’s palpable.”

She is frequently asked about the Holocaust, and people want to talk, but she doesn’t want it to be their only subject.

“I’ve had to make my own peace with the ghosts of history,” she said.

Her 4-year-old daughter speaks German and English. Winger is also the creator and producer of “The Berlin Stories,” a new series for NPR. An exhibition of her photographs is set to open in Berlin in 2009.

“My hope would be that people would read the book, and it would give them pause to reconsider some of the prejudices they have about the city,” she said.

Anna Winger will read from “This Must Be the Place” at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 22., at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood.

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

Candidate Adeena


If you want to really annoy Adeena Bleich, just ask her what it feels like to be a young Orthodox woman running for City Council. I know, because when we satdown recently for lunch at Shiloh’s, the first thing I asked her is what it felt like to be a young Orthodox woman running for City Council.

She rolled her eyes like my teenage daughter Shanni does when I show off my knowledge of the latest music.

It’s clear that Bleich is leery of being stereotyped, or worse, becoming some kind of political curiosity whose main calling card is her youth (she just turned 31), gender and Orthodox religion.

What she is, she says, is something a lot less dramatic: A hard-working individual who knows how local politics work and who wants to bring a new, practical attitude to serving the people.

All the people, of course.

Although she estimates that nearly half of the registered voters in her 5th District (which cuts a wide swath from West Los Angeles through Westwood, Pico-Robertson, the Fairfax area and right up to Sherman Oaks) are Jewish, she’s savvy enough to realize that Jews alone won’t carry her to victory. So Bleich, who is single and belongs to three Modern Orthodox shuls in Pico-Robertson (Young Israel of Century City, Beth Jacob Congregation and B’nai David Judea) wants to reach out.

She’s not exactly a novice at this game. She spent years as City Council Deputy to Councilman Jack Weiss— and was knee-deep in the local dramas of neighborhood groups, pro-business groups and the maze of City Hall politics. She was also in the trenches with former Speaker of the California Assembly Bob Hertzberg when he ran for mayor of Los Angeles.

So she knows the lingo, and she also knows that she’s up against some serious competition — from, among others, former city councilman Paul Koretz and neighborhood activist Ron Galperin. But she has no qualms about asking for your vote, because, as she says, she’s got some great things cooking for your district and your neighborhood.

But wait. Haven’t we seen this movie before? Isn’t that what they all say?

The truth is, I’m probably the worst guy to do a story on politicians, because as a rule, I can’t stand them. Politicians remind me of one of my least favorite traits in people: When someone over-promises and under-delivers. (I once consulted with a politician in the heat of an election race, and I recommended that he be upfront with the voters and tell them what they should not expect from either him or the government. I never heard back from him.)

Candidate Adeena Bleich, earnest charm and all, overflows with promises. She says the Council Office should be the “Nordstrom of customer service” for the city — nothing should be “too big or too small to do, or to help find the resource to redirect to”.

She believes the council staff should be more proactive in the community and less reactive (“engage the community before they even call”); they should create public safety and community programs (example: free self-defense classes for teenagers and women with local karate studios), and education eco-programs in the schools where “volunteers teach and lead recycling and gardening and create clean-up and tree-planting teams for the neighborhood from both public and private school kids in the district.”

She wants to set up an online community service guide, which includes “nonprofit, government and other local organization resources all in one place”; a mentoring/intern program between the local schools and local business people; innovative solutions “to get people out of their cars and increase public transportation”; a program to engage business owners to “make business corridors more vibrant and neighborhood friendly”; and so on.

As I listened, over three long sessions, to this litany of perfectly balanced promises, I was torn between admiration for the idealism of an aspiring young politician and my innate cynicism about politicians getting anything done.

I admit, however, that one thing cracked some of that cynicism: In the thousands of words Bleich shared with me about her dream political journey, she never dwelled on the notion of actually winning. In fact, there was hardly any talk of strategy or tactics. Instead, she talked mostly about ideas — the ideas she wanted to implement as Council member.

Her campaign strategy seems to be embedded in those very ideas, which she plans to disseminate on her Web site (Adeena2009.com), and as she knocks on 10,000 neighborhood doors (not an exaggeration, she says) over the next several months.

When I asked her mother (a lifelong Orthodox Jew who lives in Connecticut) whether she could remember a story from her daughter’s childhood that would give us a sense of what kind of politician she might be, she told me several, but one stood out.

In her early teens, Bleich was on her school’s relay swim team. During one race against another school, the other team was way ahead of Bleich’s team. By the time Bleich, who was swimming the last leg, got her turn, something improbable —and embarrassing — had happened: The other team had already finished the race. Oblivious to any humiliation, Bleich dove in and eagerly swam the last leg. Without any second thoughts, her mother adds.

It appears, then, that Bleich’s passion is in the doing. You start a job and you finish it. You make a promise and you keep it. You don’t shy away from details. You knock on 10,000 doors if you have to. You keep your head on at all times. You fight for the little guy. And then, when your work is done, you let God worry about the winning and the losing.

If you ask me, it all sounds very Jewish. But shhhh, don’t tell anyone.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

AUDIO: Iranian American Jews — Death and violence in the community (taboo?)


Local Iranian Jewish community leaders on recent incidents of violence in the community and the traditional taboo on discussing the topic.

http://jewishjournal.com/audio/IAJPodCast20080429.mp3

From Karmel Melamed’s Iranian American Jews blog.

D-A-T-E is just a four-letter word


I’m not sure why this never made any of the 2006 year-end lists, but it seems that — at least for singles — the most confusing question of the year wasn’t “How do you
pronounce ‘al-Zarqawi?'” but the more mundane “How was your date?” To be specific, the confusing part would always be the word “date,” as in, “Was I even on one?”

Because in today’s modern world, a guy and a girl looking for love can make plans, rush home from work, wash extra carefully in certain areas, put on nice clothes, spend three hours in flirtatious conversation at the local sushi joint, say a warm good night and still come home wondering whether what they just experienced was a date or two people who wanted to be on a date but were instead simply “hanging out.”


advertisement

Jewish Singles Cruises

I’ve lost count of how many times in the past year I’ve innocently asked friends — male or female — “So, how was your date?” only to get the response, “Well, I’m not sure it was a date…” followed by some analytical drivel I can’t quote here because I wasn’t really listening to the nonsense that came between “And then he said … ” “So I said … ” “But then he acted like … ” “So I couldn’t tell if he thought….”

As a single mom whose social life in the first half of 2006 was as nonexistent as sleep, I couldn’t understand why everyone had suddenly become so squeamish about using the word “date.” Why wouldn’t anyone call a date a date anymore? Like other neutral words that became linguistic pariahs (“Well, I’m not sure I’d call myself a feminist”) had the word “date” acquired a negative connotation during the time I’d been parked in a rocking chair breast-feeding and reading back issues of Parenting magazine?

Then, as soon as I started wearing a bra and reading The New Yorker again, I asked a guy out and the semantic “date” problem became utterly clear. We met for dinner, shared some calamari and banter, and took a quick walk before ending up at my car. I thought it was fairly obvious that there was some platonic but not romantic chemistry between us, which I guess is also why I thought it was fairly obvious that when I hugged him goodbye, it was the same hug I give to all of my friends and even some random strangers.

Admittedly, he did say, “I’d like to take you out again,” which under other circumstances might suggest the words “on a date,” but this is a guy whose neighbor is one of The Beatles. I mean, with that kind of financial picture, I thought, maybe he takes everyone out.

Sort of like the way I hug everyone. In any event, I assumed he knew that although we’d indeed gone on a date, if we got together again, we would be “hanging out.”

Just in case, though — and believe me, I’m not proud of this — when we did make plans the following week, I felt the need to explain that while I was definitely interested in him, I wasn’t interested interested in him. In other words, we’d be setting a date but not going on a date date.

It was a rather unfortunate e-mail, one that still makes me blush with mild regret and severe mortification. Especially since it ultimately turned out that he had zero interest in me — “as a friend” or otherwise. Date schmate.

I realized, in retrospect, that there were good reasons for my never having asked a guy on a date before (or since).

Unconsciously, even before my friends started substituting the verboten words “going on a date” with “having a drink,” “meeting for brunch” or “doing a hike,” I must have known that regardless of whether you used that four-letter D-word, the concept alone could get you into all kinds of trouble. For instance, if I asked a guy out on an explicit date, and he wasn’t interested, he’d have to find a tactful way to reject the offer — and as a woman, I know what an oxymoron “tactful rejection” can be.

On the other hand, if I made a more casual offer, how would he know it was a date? Would he interpret “Want to come to this party on Thursday night?” as “with me” or “to meet other women”? Even worse, what if he knew it was a date and I realized midway through the evening that I just wanted to be friends (or never see him again)? How could I convey my lack of interest in dating him (other than not returning his calls, which he’d interpret as me “playing hard to get,” since I, after all, was the one who expressed interest in the first place)?

My friend Kevin (a friend friend, no dating) said that to avoid this kind of confusion, he goes on what he likes to call “stealth dates.” As he put it, “Most women don’t know I’m asking them out, and 70 percent of the time, they won’t know I’m on a date with them. But I’m having a lovely time.”

It’s an interesting strategy, but my wish for 2007 is that we singles return to the real thing. We may be looking ahead toward a brand new year, but I’m already nostalgic for a good old-fashioned romantic d-a-t-e. If only somebody would be bold enough to unambiguously ask me on one.

Lori Gottlieb is a commentator for NPR and her most recent book is “I Love You, Nice To Meet You” (St. Martin’s Press). Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.

Behind the Bimah


In “Teaching Your Children About God,” Rabbi David Wolpe suggests taking our children to a sanctuary when services are not being conducted to give them a sense of the
sacred.

I love this idea. I have been in my own sanctuary at odd hours, and even if I am there for “business reasons” — taking pictures for a new synagogue brochure, for example — I feel different in the sanctuary than I do in any other room.
Seeing the eternal light, knowing the Torah is sleeping inside the ark, gives me the feeling of being on holy ground.

But here’s a variation on Wolpe’s idea — let your children stand in awe in front of the bimah, but then take them behind the bimah. Raise the curtain and demystify the sanctuary. By doing so you help them feel comfortable.

Many of my adult friends still feel uncomfortable in synagogue. To them, it is a place where you have to go — where you have to sit still and say meaningless prayers in a difficult language, where you have to listen to lectures from a rabbi who you do not know personally and are, perhaps, a little intimidated by. No wonder they only attend services twice a year.

I was extremely fortunate as a child. My family “raised the curtain” for me. And they did so by doing two things.

The first is unique to my family — my uncle is Cantor Saul Hammerman, who is now cantor emeritus of Beth El in Baltimore. Before my parents affiliated with our Philadelphia synagogue, they would take us to Baltimore to be with our extended family for holidays. I remember sitting in Beth El, an imposing synagogue to anyone, but even more so to a little girl. I looked up at the enormous ark and wondered how anyone could ever reach the Torahs.

I listened to the brilliant Rabbi Jacob Agus, and wondered how old I would be when I would understand his sermons. And I listened to the chazzan — so imposing in his white robes and his big white hat with the pompom on top (oh, how my sister and I loved that hat). When he sang, his voice wafted over me — both beautiful and frightening in its power and passion.

But, then, during the Torah procession, something would happen. My sister and I would scramble to the end of the aisle to kiss the Torah, and as the procession passed the cantor would wink at us and flick his tallit so that the fringes brushed our cheeks. We would giggle, and the imposing chazzan would once again become our beloved Uncle Saul.

At other times, Uncle Saul took us to his office and even showed us where his robes hung and how he entered and exited the bimah. Those special visits made the synagogue seem less foreboding, but no less magical.

The second thing my parents did was be involved with our synagogue. Their involvement inspired my own. I remember being on the bimah with the choir, making macaroni in the kitchen between tutoring the younger students and waiting for my own evening classes to begin, and even raking leaves at my rabbi’s house during our Kadima “Rent-A-Rake” fundraiser. This involvement, this ownership, made synagogue a comfortable place.

And so, the very first thing I did when my husband and I joined our shul was to volunteer. I didn’t like the feeling of entering the synagogue and not knowing what it was like behind the bimah. By volunteering, I was able to feel at home. I did this for me and I did it for my children.

This is a gift every Jewish parent can give to her child. Not all families have an Uncle Saul, but everyone can volunteer. Synagogues desperately need lay leaders. It is so easy to get involved — just call and ask how you can help. And then? Well, you will have raised the curtain, you will learn that a synagogue is not run on some intimidating magic, but by people you know and care about. Synagogue will no longer be a frightening Oz, but rather a welcoming home.

Meredith Jacobs, author of the soon-to-be released “Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat” (HarperPerennial) is founder and editor of

College Students Find High Holidays’ Place in Higher Learning


The High Holidays are here. With them comes a new school year, whereupon many recent graduates of Jewish high schools will face the challenges for the first time that can accompany being an observant Jew in an academic environment that runs on the Christian calendar.

Gone are the days when observant Jewish students suffered for their absences from class or exams on the High Holidays or Passover. The California Education Code fully protects students’ rights to observe religious holidays free of academic penalty.

But the fact remains that academic life at nonsectarian universities may not have become much easier for young Jews who want to observe, because there are still indirect effects of such absences.

At top schools, such as USC and UCLA, observant Jewish students are finding that the penalty to be paid is all in the details.

Some students say that although professors are understanding about Yom Kippur, and despite the fact that Rosh Hashanah falls on the weekend this year, time they spend in shul could set them back because of assignments that are due the day after the holidays or even on Yom Kippur itself.

“I am worried because I am an architecture major, and there are deadlines, and it’s fast paced so I just have to be ahead of game constantly,” said Yoav Weiss, who just entered his freshman year at USC.

Although most universities have support staff available to aid students dealing with religious issues — at Hillel, the Office of Religious Life or University Chaplain’s office — most can only help deal with the major scheduling conflicts, like those that involve rescheduling an exam that falls on a holiday.
Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of the Office of Religious Life at USC, admitted that she couldn’t come to the aid of students over the myriad little conflicts that affect them.

For example, some professors offer four midterms and throw out each student’s lowest exam score in the calculation of the students’ final grades — but if they inadvertently choose to give an exam on a Jewish holiday, thereby making that exam the student’s lowest, the student likely has no recourse. In circumstances like this, the Office of Religious Life can do little to help, according to Laemmle.

“Sometimes Jews have to work a little harder, and that’s OK,” said Laemmle, who said she tries not to show Jewish students any favor in her role at the school.
Observing Shabbat weekly may be the greatest challenge of all, however, at universities where honors programs or intensive, fast-track programs demand extra time on Fridays and weekends. Some students said they have encountered professors who cannot comprehend why they cannot stay late on a Friday night, or e-mail them on Saturday.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director at UCLA Hillel, was skeptical of the notion that there is a “problem” for young Jews who want to observe Shabbat or holidays at universities. He thinks students should look at the positive aspects of the modern university, which allows them to miss class so that they can affirm their Judaism.

“You’re dealing with a system that attempts to create the best possible climate for someone who wants to be Jewish and who wants to observe,” he said. “So, I’m trying to understand why someone would want to make out of that an issue. On the contrary, one would want to enterprise. Look at the opportunity you have.”
Seidler-Feller emphasized that the university is the place where students learn to prioritize their commitments with confidence.

“You go out into the world, and you know that you’re in a law job, and it’s tough … and then they say they want you to work on such and such a day, and you have to have the inner strength and self-confidence and integrity,” he added. “So when do you start learning this? At a university, where the downside is minimal.”

Not surprisingly, observant Jewish students who have already experienced the fork in the road that a nonsectarian education can present tend to be more relaxed about dealing with it in college.

David Goldenberg, a recent graduate of La Jolla High School, just began school at UCLA. He’s already made up his mind about when he’ll miss class and when he won’t and put on a relaxed front.

“It’s only a few days a year,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”

Rising Singing Star Pitches New Sound


Many young girls dream of a life on the stage, but few could have envisioned the career now enjoyed by Hila Plitmann, a Jerusalem-born soprano who these days makes her home in Studio City. Plitmann, 32, is not famous in the way that, say, sopranos like Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt and Anna Netrebko are. She is not a star. But she is making a name for herself, and not by singing music by Puccini, Mozart, Strauss and Wagner.

Instead, Plitmann is building a career based largely on new music by composers like David Del Tredici, John Corigliano, Roger Reynolds and Esa-Pekka Salonen, the latter the longtime music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and something of a Plitmann champion. Indeed, Plitmann was one of two featured soloists in the premiere of Salonen’s “Wing on Wing,” written for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 and dedicated to its architect, Frank Gehry.

That work — for orchestra, two sopranos and Gehry’s voice sampled on tape — has become something of a calling card for the soprano, who most recently sang it at Disney Hall on May 31. That concert came on the heels of another at Disney Hall on May 9, in which she participated in premieres of Unsuk Chin’s vibrant “Cantatrix Sopranica” and Reynolds’ sprawling, multidimensional “Illusion,” two works commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group.

On June 7, she’ll appear in a less likely space, at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, joining two other singers — mezzo-soprano Alma Mora Ponce and tenor Mark Saltzman, cantor at Congregation Kol Ami synagogue — for a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “From Jewish Folk Poetry” and a selection of Yiddish songs. (The trio gave the same program at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla on May 24.) She’s doing this in part, out of friendship for Neal Brostoff, who is producing the concert and accompanying the singers.

Though Shostakovich, who died in 1975, used Russian translations of the poems for his song cycle, musicologist Joachim Braun restored the original Yiddish texts in the 1980s. And it’s that version Plitmann and her colleagues are singing.

“From Jewish Folk Poetry” doesn’t require Plitmann to enter the vocal stratosphere, but her ability to do so has served her well and marked her for distinction. A coloratura soprano with a silvery tone who seems utterly at ease projecting high notes, Plitmann says, “I was always a screamer.”

She describes her father, an academic, as having “a beautiful voice” and her mother as a classical music enthusiast, but neither was more than a hobbyist. Both remain in Israel, as do the singer’s sister and brother.

Early on, Plitmann was an ambivalent pianist, and though she sang in a youth choir, she gave it up for athletics, particularly gymnastics, dancing and running — something her needle-thin dancer’s body still attests to. But she missed singing and soon found herself taking private lessons and enrolling in a music high school.

Unable to find the advanced vocal training she needed in Israel, Plitmann, at her teacher’s urging, enrolled in New York’s Juilliard School, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But talented singer or not, she still had an obligation to the Israel Defense Forces.

“I did my basic training for the Israeli army in the summers, during my second and third years at Juilliard,” she says. “I learned how to shoot Uzis and run around in the dirt. It was very bizarre.”

Juilliard is also where she met her husband, Eric Whitacre, a composer.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone, so I married him,” she says. They now have an 8-month-old son, Esh.

Whitacre is composing an opera for his wife. Titled, “Paradise Lost,” and described as “opera electronica” on Whitacre’s Web site, the work is an amalgam of styles, including, techno, rave and ambient. Plitmann likens the music to that of Bjork and the Postal Service (the band, not the letter carriers).

Often, classical artists come to appreciate the rigors of modern music once they mature, but not Plitmann. Her interest in the new dates back to her childhood. That youth chorus her mother sent her to emphasized contemporary Israeli music. At 14, she appeared in her first opera, singing the role of Flora, the bewitched little girl at the center of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw.” And while still in high school, she sang Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” with the Israel Philharmonic.

Plitmann describes her specialization in new music as “an accident that turned into a choice,” noting that she likes “the challenge of learning something difficult, whatever the era,” yet singling out modern works for their “many dramatic elements.”

She says that audiences can’t be forced to love new music but insists that committed performances from artists like her can help sway them to be more open-minded.

“I find there’s more in contemporary music that can be used expressively than both musicians and audiences realize,” she says. “People think contemporary music is cold and intellectual, but that’s not always true.”

Plitmann is certainly no snob when it comes to music. Her personal interests extend to various forms of pop music, and even professionally, she makes choices that some might consider too populist. Her limited discography will soon include a song cycle to Bob Dylan texts called “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Corigliano, who won an Oscar for his score to the film, “The Red Violin.” And though she isn’t exactly getting star billing, Plitmann is the vocal soloist on Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to “The Da Vinci Code.”

She got the job through a close friend of her husband’s and made the recording in London, an experience she calls “amazing.” The lyrics, she says, are meant to mimic Latin, though no actual language is being sung. The soprano admits that the score is “not the most complex music,” yet it has another virtue: it sounds good.

“I love singing beautiful music,” Plitmann says.

The “Shostakovich at 100 Concert” will be held at 8 p.m. on June 7 at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For information, call (818) 788-6000 or visit

‘Hybrid’ Actor Crafts ‘Everyman’ Show


Is it possible for an everyman to be a leader? Can an everyman be a woman?

Ameenah Kaplan, who calls herself a “hybrid” — the product of an African American mother who converted to Judaism and a Jewish father — is directing, choreographing and co-producing “Everyman for Himself.” Appearing weekends at the Unknown Theatre in Hollywood, the show is a hybrid itself, in that it blends music, dance, theater and capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian dance form that incorporates self-defense maneuvers. Kaplan also wrote and conceived the production and, indeed, thinks of herself as an everyman.

Shaped by Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Kaplan, 31, grew up in Atlanta, where she was bat mitzvahed and confirmed and where, she says, she would “float into different communities and never really fit into any of them.” As the only non-Christian among blacks, the only black among Jews, she says, “you’d be in a room and nobody sees you.”

Everyman, the title character in her show, played by Michael Gallagher, is both invisible and conspicuously visible. Where the other ensemble players paint their faces and wear togs like members of an African or Indian tribe, Everyman looks like a stiff businessman, donning a tie, starched shirt and long pants.

“Go with the flow,” is one of the adages he reads from a book, yet Everyman never quite fits in. He is singled out by one female character, who engages in a kind of martial arts match with him that is equal parts seduction and boxing.

None of Kaplan’s characters have traditional names; instead, they sport generic titles like Ball Girl, Judge, Bee and Boss. With the beat of African drums playing in the background as the ensemble characters teach Everyman to dance, there is the sense that we are witnessing an ancient ritual among primal beings.

In the production notes, Everyman is billed as a Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin “genius/fool”; he appears awkward, a modern man, exposed as if for the first time to the world of conformity that dates back to our days as early Homo sapiens in the Horn of Africa.

“People are essentially primal anyway,” says Kaplan, sitting on a couch in a lounge down the hall from her actors’ rehearsal hall. Wearing a head wrap that conceals her afro, Kaplan says, “We’re all simple and alike at the bottom. My acting training taught us that. Come into the room, get your shoes off and build the actor from the ground up.”

We share more than not, she says, pointing out “the visceral body connections celebrating those things that bring us together — sound, energy, drums, heartbeat, blood flowing.”

Kaplan has the slim, athletic body of a dancer; she has played numerous TV and legitimate theater roles, and sees herself first as an actor. She smiles when asked if she was somewhat conflicted over not playing the lead role herself, but she says that Gallagher embodies Everyman. She also stresses that every actor in the show contributes as much as the others. All of the actors play multiple roles: “The ensemble is the show. There are no supporting roles. No one’s playing crossword puzzles backstage. There are no cigarette breaks.”

One scene flows into the next, each one carrying totemic significance. The smallest prop — whether it’s a book, a jacket, a ball or a handkerchief (a nod perhaps to “Othello”) — becomes a talisman in this primordial landscape, where the characters speak very few words and those they do are often monosyllabic.

Everyman may be more Jesus than Adam. He must choose whether to fight or kill another man. Unlike the others, he is consumed with grief.

“What he’s going through is the human condition,” says Kaplan, whose work ethic really comes through in person. Reluctant to leave her actors for an interview, Kaplan never loses her graciousness and generosity; she has the maturity and seriousness of one who knows that, without her, the play will not proceed. Even during the brief interview, she wants to make sure that the actors are OK. At one point, she tells the stage manager that the actors will need her to be there for the next scene, involving some dance routines that they have not tried before.

As the interview ends, Kaplan, the everyman, springs to her feet with the physicality of Keaton. She will direct her cast without any crossword puzzle or cigarette breaks. She is anything but invisible.

“Everyman for Himself” plays Friday and Saturday nights at Unknown Theater, 1110 Seward St., near Santa Monica Boulevard, through April 29. For tickets and information, call (323) 466-7781.

 

Valentine’s Day.com


“J-ated,” as in “jaded,” might be the best way to describe the ennui that has set in among many JDaters these days, singles tired of the merry-go-round of endless possibility and disappointment.

In spite of that, or because of it, new dating Web sites seem to pop up every day.

Remember that scene in the movie “Singles,” where the desperate woman asks the airline to seat her next to a single man — and she ends aside an obnoxious 10-year-old? Ostensibly that won’t happen on AirTroductions.com, which is not a Web site for mile-high clubbers (if you don’t know, I can’t explain it here). Nor is it solely for Jews. This outfit targets people who want to make business or personal connections either on the flight, at the airport, or with other travelers in the same city. If they find someone who matches your itinerary, you can pay $5 to contact that person. (It might beat hearing, “Can you take off your belt, Miss?” from the security guy….)

For more personal intervention, try the new Jretromatch.com, which uses paid matchmakers to set Jews up (that’s the retro part). The site, which launched Feb. 6, is based on the successful SawYouAtSinai.com. (Get it? All Jewish souls were originally at Mount Sinai, so it’s based on the pickup line, “Haven’t we met before? Didn’t I see you at Sinai?”) SawYouAtSinai aims for traditional and religious Jews and has a firm foothold in the Modern Orthodox market. It claims 14,000 members and 95 married success stories.

If you don’t want to leave your entire fate to the matchmaker, Jretromatch.com (and its non-Jewish counterpart, retromatch.com) also will let you peruse the database on your own. At $35.95 for a gold membership (which gets you six months plus two “free bonus months”) it’s less than JDate for the same amount of time, although with a much smaller membership (launching with 2,500 non-Orthodox culled from SawYouatSinai’s lists). Still, Jretromatch promises that matchmakers will interview all members and verify that they’re Jewish, something that JDate does not guarantee.

There are a handful of other Web sites aimed at religious and traditional Jews. The main one is Frumster.com, which skews toward the more religious of the Orthodox community (hence the word frum, which means “religious” in Yiddish), although now it has opened up to all “marriage-minded” Jews, according to Ben Rabizadeh, CEO of Frumster. The Web site claims 20,000 members and 542 couples (married or engaged) and starts at $8.95 per month, but still seems aimed most at the very religious, especially given that it requires users to specify levels of observance. You can choose between Traditional and Non-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox-Machmir, Modern Orthodox-Liberal, Yeshivish Modern, Yeshivish/Black Hat, Chasidic, Carlebachian, Shomer Mitzvot.

Other religious Web sites include UrbanTraditional.com (“putting traditional values back into Jewish dating”), Orthodate (“Your Bashert could be just a click away”) and Frumdate (“Our first priority is not simply to make a match but to help singles draw closer to Hashem and find the best within themselves”).

In addition to religiosity, there are other niches in the Jewish online dating market. Consider DarkJews.com — not a racist term, but a statement about skin tone for some Sephardic Jews — a new Web site for Syrian, Persian, Bucharian, Moroccan, Israeli, Egyptian, Yemenite, Spanish, and Turkish Jews. There’s even a category for half-Sephardic and “other,” which defies easy understanding in this context. Another category is “Come to America” where the choices are: Born, Toddler, Adolescent, Teenager, Adult or I’m Not in America.

DarkJews.com is based on the myspace.com and friendster.com models, which allows users to add their friends and their friends’ friends and is more of a social connector than a straight dating Web site. Right now it’s free, and popular among Persian Jews in California. Lumping all “dark Jews” together doesn’t work even for all dark Jews, because many of Far and Middle Eastern origin prefer to date within their own, more narrowly defined communities. Bjews.com, for example, for Bukharian Jews (from Uzbekistan and Central Asia) includes a dating site.

The most retro thing of all, though, might be to leave the computer behind. “Just let it happen naturally,” as your married friends will advise, putting aside the problem that natural meetings often mean the UPS man (or woman) delivering your Amazon.com orders and your neighbor asking you to turn your music down. Bar hopping is equally random and can lead to options with less to offer than the hardworking UPS delivery person.

If that leads you back to JDate, well, it does claim half a million members. And JDate is throwing a party at The House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard on Feb. 13.

Who knows?

 

Messianics Gather for National Meeting


A Christian megachurch whose clergy has worked with local Jewish leaders in recent years to support Israel gathered last weekend to celebrate Jews who proclaim Jesus as the messiah.

About 1,100 people attended the Jan. 20-21 Road To Jerusalem conference, which took place at megachurch at The Church on the Way in Van Nuys. Christian Zionists bonded with Messianic Jews who maintain Jewish traditions but believe in Jesus.

The major national conference came at a time when Jewish leaders like Anti Defamation League head Abe Foxman have challenged the wisdom of Jews aligning with the Christian right solely because of its strong support of Israel.

Christian Zionists see the existence of modern Israel as a precondition for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which they believe will be marked by the violent death of millions, including the ingathered Jews. Those who survive the Apocolypse will embrace Jesus.

Jewish defenders of the Christian Zionists say Christian support for Israel outweighs any concerns about end-time theology. But critics point to support for groups like Messianic Jews as proof that these groups pose a threat to Jewish continuity.

“It’s kind of like they have placards that say ‘Israel – yes’ on one side, but ‘Judaism – maybe’ or ‘no’ on the other,” Rabbi A. James Rudin, inter-religious affairs adviser for the American Jewish Committee, told the Associated Press.

Among the conference’s Saturday afternoon speakers was Don Finto, the longtime pastor of Nashville’s Belmont Church. Standing before an audience of more than 900, he said, “I want everybody to sit down except those who are Jewish by birth.”

About 80 people remained standing.

“Your destiny is to bless the nations,” Finto said. “You Jewish people are meant to bless us; we need your blessing, but you need ours. Let’s bless each other.”

These Messianic Jews, often seen as an aberration if not a threat by the Jewish community, have been embraced by evangelical Christians.

Those same Christian leaders are, in other local settings, welcomed by mainstream Jewish leaders for their Christian Zionism. Among those walking the line between the two worlds is the Rev. Jack Hayford of Church on the Way, who has spoken eloquently about Israel at Stephen S. Wise Temple, the Reform congregation in Bel Air. Hayford has brought busloads of his congregants to events sponsored by the Israel-Christian Nexus, which seeks to strengthen Christian and Jewish support for Israel. At the Road to Jerusalem event, Hayford spoke of, “helping the church understand what God’s doing among Jews today and how to relate to it.”

Despite their theological differences, Hayford’s mainstream Jewish friends include Reform Rabbi Steven Jacobs of the Woodland Hills synagogue Kol Tikvah. He holds High Holiday services at Church on the Way.

“Jack Hayford is no Pat Robertson, that’s the best way I can put it,” Jacobs told The Journal. “And you have to discern who you can live with theologically, and Jack Hayford is a person of integrity and never has pushed my buttons in terms of salvation. He respects the Jew for who he and she is.”

The Road To Jerusalem conference was organized by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, founder of the 1990s Promise Keepers movement for Christian men. As Promise Keepers rallies became smaller, in 2004, McCartney and the Rev. Raleigh Washington, a prominent African American pastor, developed Road to Jerusalem events to create Christian Zionist support for Israel and Messianic Jews.

“We believe according to God’s holy word, the Torah and the New Testament, that when a Jewish person recognizes that Jesus is his messiah, he becomes a Jew who has now found his messiah,” Washington said. “The Jew who believes that Jesus is the messiah believes that the messiah has come. The Orthodox Jew who does not believe Jesus is the messiah, he’s still waiting for messiah. So both believe in the messiah; the question that has to be answered is Jesus really the true messiah?”

Most attendees at the event were Christians, although it was dominated by images of Israel, as well as Jewish-themed vendors, kosher food and men wearing kippahs.

Performing at the conference was a dance troupe from the Messianic Jewish congregation Beth Emunah in Agoura Hills. The troupe’s leader said that out of her 15 dancers, eight were Jewish. Similarly, Messianic Rabbi Eric Carlson’s said he has 280 people in his congregation in Newport News, Va., but that out “of that 280, 100 are Jewish.”

David Chernoff is the son of a Messianic rabbi. He now runs his own Messianic congregation in Philadelphia and is prominent in the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America.

“We love our gentile brethren, but we knew we had to stand on our own two feet,” Chernoff said, recounting early Messianic movement growth in the 1970s. “I never imagined that we in Messianic Judaism would have friends such as this.”

The Rev. Mike Bickle of Kansas City, Mo., spoke at the conference about end-of-times predictions about Israel; in a passing comment, he used the phrase, “unsaved Jews,” and said a Satan-like leader, “will be required to exterminate the Jewish race.”

Messianic Jews at the conference complained about being harassed in Israel for their beliefs and facing immigration problems over Israel’s right-of-return law for Diaspora Jews. When asked about this while speaking at a separate event in Los Angeles last weekend, Israeli politician Natan Sharansky said, “If you change your religion, you don’t have a right to become a citizen by law of return … the change of religion means change of nationality.”

Capturing Chasidim


As a street photographer, Maya Dreilinger echoes the sentiments of the 1982 “Missing Persons” song “Walking in LA.” Driving around the city, “you don’t see a lot of people walking,” she said. “But the Chasidism are always out on the streets and not just on Saturdays.”

With her camera, Dreilinger spent about two months documenting the streets of the Chasidic community bordering La Brea Avenue. Her exhibition, “La Brea on Robertson,” currently on display at the Workmen’s Circle, presents an intriguing mix of photographs and paintings that in some ways reveal more about the artist than the subject matter.

Born in Israel and raised in Los Angeles, the 30-year-old Dreilinger admits to having pre-conceived judgments about Chasidic Jews before she embarked on her project.

“I believed that their culture was restrictive, that women were always patronized,” she said. “But being around them for two months, I was humbled. Now I have no more anger or resentment, only respect.”

While other photographers have sought to document Chasidism from more of an insider’s perspective, Dreilinger purposefully maintained her distance as an outsider. She wandered around the La Brea area dressed as she normally does and refused the occasional invitation to dinner at someone’s home.

“I didn’t want to go in that direction,” she said. “I wanted to be only the respectful observer.”

Upon viewing Dreilinger’s work, Eric Gordon, director of the Workmen’s Circle, immediately thought of Roman Vishniac’s photographs of pre-war Poland.

“Maya has a discerning eye, and I love the humor in her work,” he said. “As for her subject matter, we may not be a religious-centered organization, but we are devoted to Yiddish culture. A socialist from the 1930s might have condemned this exhibit, but we’ve evolved since then. They [Chasidim] are part of our Yiddish community.”

The majority of Dreilinger’s photographs clearly show her outsider’s perspective. Several depict rear-view shots of Chasidic men and boys walking down the street and radiating inscrutability. A Chasidic boy, shown in the midst of prayer in an unidentifiable interior, seems completely absorbed in his own world. In “Kosher by Kehilla,” two women walking toward a street sign for a kosher bakery appear partially visible. Only their skirts and the top of a hat can be glimpsed.

In contrast, other photos subtly reveal the intrusion of the modern world. “Grandfather’s Touch” shows a little girl, with her father and grandfather, who carries the kind of plastic backpack desired by most trendy kindergartners. In “The Alley,” a group of black-garbed men pass an alleyway near the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Beverly Boulevard. Three men who appear to be Hispanic laborers inhabit the alleyway. One of them looks at the Chasidim, wide-eyed curiosity written across his face.

Often, Dreilinger succeeds in capturing the community’s varying attitudes in being photographed by an outsider. Some of her subjects smile broadly and pose for the camera. Some regard the camera as an alien interloper.

In some portraits, a sly humor can be found. A striking juxtaposition, for example, appears in “Trio,” where through the illusion of a reflection two young men look as if they stand next to the bust of a mannequin while they peer into the window of a clothing store. At first glance, the headless mannequin bears some resemblance to a Torah scroll.

Dreilinger took 14 of her black-and-white photographs and painted over their surfaces, sometimes leaving only a portion of the original image intact. These are hung situated across from the originals, and many a viewer will be tempted to keep traveling back and forth to cross reference the works. These paintings explode with vibrant color and whimsicality and, for the most part, do not evoke the sense of restraint and limitation found in many of the original photographs.

Take the Chasidic women walking toward the bakery sign. In the painted version, they wear bright red suits. The dress of an elderly woman standing outside the Westside Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard has been colored in with bright flowers suggestive of a Hawaiian lei. In “Close-up,” a young, handsome Chasidic man posing against a wall has been colored and shaded so that he resembles an urban nightlife character from a Toulouse-Lautrec painting.

In other paintings, Dreilinger has added natural landscapes that sometimes enhance and other times completely obfuscate the original photograph. One of these paintings depicts two Chasidic girls with their hands over their mouths wandering amidst a rural, mountainous backdrop. In the original photograph titled “Contemplating Girls,” they stand on a city street with other schoolchildren.

Dreilinger says the paintings brought her “emotional release.”

“I hope I captured what is mysterious about these people and at the same time, beautiful. I wasn’t interested in showing ugliness,” she said. “But I did want to open people’s eyes.”

“La Brea on Roberston: Paintings and Photographs by Maya Dreilinger,” Jan. 22-March 5, Shenere Velt Gallery, Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Roberston Blvd. For more information, call (310) 552-2007.

 

Still Smarting


By Sunday evening, single women across America were trying to slit their wrists by inflicting a hundred little paper cuts from the Sunday New York Times Magazine, featuring an article by Maureen Dowd, “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?”

Feminism is over, Dowd writes, men only want to date non-challenging, non-career-oriented women, and women are willingly returning to traditional gender roles.

If “Sex and the City’s” Carrie Bradshaw were writing this article, she’d type in her familiar courier font: “Sometimes I wonder … are men threatened by smart, successful women?”

But Carrie’s era has ended, apparently, says the real-life (non-sex) op-ed writer Dowd, pictured in the Oct. 30 magazine in an austere black suit paired with fishnet stockings.

“So was the feminist movement some sort of cruel hoax? Do women get less desirable as they get more successful?” she laments.

I felt like I was listening to my father, or my rabbi — if I still had one (a rabbi, not a father) — with this return to men as providers, women as caretakers and never the twain shall meet.

Dowd’s basic theory posits that “The Rules” — that once-silly guidebook on how to entrap a man, which is now read nonironically, as in The Torah of dating — was just the beginning. The end, a decade later, is women in their 20s who go to law school planning to drop out to get married, women who won’t call a guy because men don’t like to be chased and men marrying nurturers like their secretaries because they don’t desire a challenging woman (like “the boss”). Which leaves some smart, successful women wondering, alone, where they went wrong.

It’s not that Dowd said anything particularly new. It’s just that, well, the thing is … a lot of it is true. I wish I could deny it; I wish I could say that feminism is safe and Dowd is bitter. And that the people she quotes are a small random selection; and that plenty of people find an equal partner; and my friends and I will too someday (soon). But I’ve had too many recent experiences that suggest otherwise:

  • At a recent Sukkot meal I met a single guy, an educated artist-intellectual who was becoming religious. What he found lovely about religion was the “traditional roles that people — women — played in terms of family,” he said, before stopping when he saw the look of horror on my face.
  • My friend’s father recently came out to visit from New York. The man’s a professor at a prestigious university and married to a woman who is also a professor at a better university and who makes more money than him. After I spent the whole night trying to charm him silly, he told his son, “She’s going to have trouble meeting a man. She’s too smart.”
  • I was recently rebuffed by a guy who said, “You’re the type of woman I could bring home to my parents, but my problem is I’m only attracted to stupid, simple women — women whom I’d never socialize with or bring home to my parents.”

He’d go out with these bartenders, dancers — secretaries — for a few months till conversation ran dry and he couldn’t stand the sight of them any longer and then flee like an escaped convict to socialize with the likes of me — people in his “class.” It was not a question of looks.

“You’re just too smart for me,” he said sadly.

Look, I’ve tried dating down. My last two boyfriends were by no means my intellectual equals; they weren’t threatened by my brain, but they weren’t particularly interested either. Or interesting, really. I chucked them in hopes of finding my intellectual equal, my soul mate, the man I can ask advice from and discuss everything with — from literature to politics to religion to child rearing, to even this stupid New York Times article.

But I hear that he’s off dating his secretary, his physical therapist, his nanny, his cook — all the nurturers we thought we could hire while we provided the intellectual stimulation, which he apparently prefers to get from “The Daily Show.”

Look, maybe we can’t have it all — the perfect career and the perfect man and the perfect family — and if I could do it all over again, maybe I’d do some things differently: Maybe I wouldn’t have done all that I’ve done if I had known the price for independence is … being alone.

Maybe. But maybe not.

Dating for women of my generation has always been about the conflict of being yourself vs. behaving like someone else in order to get the prized man. But what kind of guy would I get if I behaved like someone else? Who would I be? What kind of we would there be if I weren’t me?

The women of the generations before me, well, maybe they were lucky. Lucky without feminism, lucky to be in the haven of their traditional roles. And maybe that’s the happy fate that also awaits the women of the future.

What is a Modern Girl to do, Ms. Dowd? Sadly enough she doesn’t answer that question, so I guess this is one article I’m going to have to write on my own.

 

Like I Love Fresca


There are pros and cons to dating in the modern technological age.

Some recent downfalls?

A cyber-stalking from a boyfriend’s crazed ex, finding my exes on JDate and some unsavory messages from men who perceived my contributions to this singles column to be an open invitation (when they should realize it’s actually a public place to air my dirty laundry).

But there are some positive social benefits to the Internet — besides the ability to Google any potential date. I speak of the cyberspace kiss off. I gotta say, I’m kind of a fan.

Here’s how it worked for me. I had spent a few weeks dating this man. You know how it goes: A haphazard introduction in an elevator led to a couple of phone calls, which yielded to dinners, then dates, then most significantly an evening where I actually allowed this gentleman to escort me to an auto show.

An auto show.

He is a lovely human being. But after a certain point, it was clear there was no love there. And that the feeling was mutual.

It reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from “The Simpsons”: “Of course I love you. Like I love Fresca.”

This man was refreshing and sweet, like Fresca: bubbly, approachable and thirst quenching, sure, but a bunch of empty calories. At the end of the day, we realized what we had on our hands was a lukewarm Fresca, quickly losing its fizz.

That’s how it goes sometimes. Mutual attractions can fizzle.

Still, it’s awkward to leave matters hanging. Even the briefest and most ill-fated attempts at relationships have an inherent level of intensity.

So while the inevitable stutter-starts can be deflating, it’s a further downer when the situation will never be spoken of, never resolved, never finished.

My gal pals consoled me with: “You were never into him anyway,” or “You are better off without him.”

Yet the lack of closure smarted.

Then, a week later, I opened my Inbox. The subject line said “Sorry we haven’t spoken.”

When I opened the e-mail, I discovered a thoughtful note that assured me I was a fantastic individual, that he had a great time getting to know me, but that being in a relationship was just not “where he wanted to be” at the present time.

It was bona fide Bail Mail. And shockingly, it felt helpful.

Maybe being on the receiving end of Bail Mail isn’t a stellar position. You are, in fact, being rejected by the contemporary equivalent of a hand-passed note in history class.

Some women would prefer a phone call, an earnest discussion over brunch or a sloppy and emotional speech after a few too many cocktails. But I appreciated the succinct cleanliness of it all.

By getting one little e-mail, we at least acknowledged something existed, and then ceased to exist. I even got a little ego boost from his compliments, even if he was just being diplomatic or nice.

And best of all, it saved me (and him) from having some awkward telephone conversation where the phrase, “No, it’s OK,” was woefully over-used and abused.

Now, I am not advocating e-mail for ending a long-term relationship, which warrants some human-on-human discussion. But when it comes to the fizzle, perhaps it’s better to pen and send some decent parting words than to let the whole can of Fresca fester. And in that respect, technology can be our friend — an eloquent way of navigating the very ineloquent world of modern dating.

And let’s face it; I would rather get my Inbox flooded with poetic Bail Mail than Internet specials on Viagra any day.

Lilla Zuckerman is the co-author of the “Miss Adventures” books “Tangle in Tijuana” and “Beauty-Queen Blowout” (Fireside, 2003).

Â

Kabbalah and the Modern Shrink


“Connecting to God, Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology” by Rabbi Abner Weiss (Bell Tower Books, $24).

It was Rabbi Abner Weiss, in psychologist mode, who “Jerry” went to see after his wife, “Sandy,” found him in bed with another woman. Although Jerry and Sandy seemed like the perfect couple, they lacked intimacy, and Jerry had developed a nasty habit of risky promiscuity. Sandy wanted a divorce.

Weiss’ diagnosis?

“Jerry suffered from grossly distorted chesed/gevurah [lovingkindness/power] balance…. Like his gevurah, his chesed had also been transformed by the … kelipot of the nefesh [evil shards of the animal soul].”

Although it is an atypical psychological assessment, Weiss insists that it is a curative one.

Since the early 1990s, Weiss, former rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation and current rabbi at the Westwood Village Synagogue, has been using kabbalistic tools in his psychology practice. Recently, he published “Connecting to God, Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology,” a book that asserts the congruity of the two disciplines.

“The American Psychological Association started publishing serious books on the spiritual experience in the early 1990s, and part of this trend was to look at the mystical experience that psychologists called ‘transpersonal,'” Weiss said. “But all the new transpersonal psychologists used Buddhist or Hindu systems. I began to wonder why nobody had looked at Kabbalah. In Kabbalah, I found this full-fledged, psychological system, fully developed, but buried in Aramaic texts.”

Weiss found that by using the 10 Kabbalistic Sefirot (divine filters/vessels for divine energy) as behavioral tools, he was able to help many patients have breakthroughs, and find their way out of paralyzing and dysfunctional behaviors.

These sefirot are arranged in four groups in what is known as the etz ha chayim (tree of life), and they form a paradigm that encompasses not only the divine but human behavior and experience. Above all, there is keter (crown), which is the repository of Divine will, and below all, as a foundation, there is malchut, sovereignty or the Divine presence. Then comes chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding) and data (knowledge) — the cognitive component of sefirot. The next three — chesed, gevurah, and tiferet (splendor), are the emotive sefirot. Netzach (victory), hod (empathy) and yesod (foundation) are the interpersonal sefirot.

In his professional practice, Weiss “started with the thesis that you are born with your energy system in balance, but your influences growing up throw them out of balance,” he said. “I would use kabbalistic meditations, self forgiveness and forgiveness of others [to help people] become unstuck. It is only when you become unblocked, and when you can let go and reclaim your authenticity, that you can begin to grow personally and spiritually.”

In “Connecting to God,” Weiss delineates his interest in Kabbalah, explaining its evolution, and some central tenets of kabbalistic belief, such as the makeup of the soul, and how Kabbalah understands God as “being.” In his exegesis, he does not name or credit the Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, but he does give de-facto kudos to those who have helped to popularize Kabbalah.

In his elucidation of the sefirot, he explains how different energy imbalances can produce destructive behavioral patterns. As exemplars, he uses real-life examples of the patients he has treated and their [kabbalistic] diagnoses and corrective therapies. He also clarifies how, once a person’s issues are resolved, Judaism and its mitzvot can be a tool for spiritual growth. The book is peppered with lengthy guided meditations. And for added assistance, an accompanying CD is available.

In several ways, the book is a personal one. Not only does Weiss give an account of the development of his interest in the subject, he also explains how these Kabbalistic tools helped him through a personal crisis — the discovery of long-buried family secrets about his father’s chicanery.

“As a prominent spiritual leader … [I] was terrified of being unmasked as an insecure, self-doubting individual, from a less than perfect family,” he writes.

In his own therapy, Weiss wrote a letter to his father, detailing his terrible failures as a parent. Since he did not know where his father was buried (he had disappeared before Weiss was born), Weiss read the letter to a picture he had of his father.

“The experience was cathartic. I wept as I read,” he writes. Weiss also “reparented his inner child,” by cuddling a pillow that he imagined was himself as a little boy.

“My tears began to flow as I acknowledged the boy’s pain, loneliness, and fears, and reassured him that I loved him,” he writes.

“It’s the idea of the wounded healer,” Weiss said. “I use my own recovery as a model for other people’s recovery.”

While the book is an exposition of ancient Jewish concepts, Weiss is careful to use current scientific literature and studies to bolster what he presents. The book does not shy from controversial ideas. In several places, Weiss promotes past-life regressions — that is, going under hypnosis to discover who you were in a previous life, as a tool for self-understanding.

On Oct. 9, at 5:45 p.m., Rabbi Abner Weiss will be speaking at the Academy for Jewish Religion/California, 11827 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 398-0820.

A Bissel ‘Kvetch’ Goes a Long Way


“Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods” by Michael Wex (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95).

If you asked me whether I enjoyed Michael Wex’s hilarious and learned book, “Born to Kvetch,” I would find myself in an impossible quandary. To admit the rare pleasure I derived from reading it would be to violate what Wex argues is the very essence of Yiddish sensibility: a stubborn, cynical and often maddening refusal to concede satisfaction, with anything. So, despite my enjoyment of Wex’s fresh linguistic psychoanalysis of Yiddish culture, I am bound as a Jew to respond — aftselochis! (spitefully) — with nothing more flattering than a kvetch. Thankfully however, Wex provides a variety of ingenious Yiddish idioms whereby I might indicate approval of his work, without betraying my Yiddishkeit by “speaking goyish” — that is, by expressing satisfaction or direct, cordial flattery.

So, did I like this book, you ask?

Let me tell you: “Mayne sonim zoln nisht hano’e hobn fun a aza bukh!” (“My enemies should never enjoy such a book!”)

Wex analyzes the many ways that Yiddish — a language that has perfected the art of the curse while experiencing deep discomfort with praise — developed a strategy to deal with those rare times when a Yiddish Jew (henceforth, the “Yid”) has nothing negative, nasty or bitter to say.

Imagine, for example, that the Yid has somehow managed to spend the night with Halle Berry and is asked, “Iz zee shayn?” (“Is she pretty?”). Without lying — or risking sounding satisfied by responding in a goyish (positive) way — the Yid can turn his reluctant concession of Berry’s undeniable beauty into both a kvetch and a curse: “Mayne sonim zoln zayn azoy mees” (“My enemies should only be as ugly” [as she is pretty]).

The inquirer gets far more than he asked for, always a risk when conversing in Yiddish. Not only has he received an honest, if tortuously indirect, response to his question, but he also has learned that the Yid has bitter enemies, and he has shared in the nasty Yiddish curse that these enemies should all turn metaphysically ugly.

The “my enemies” trope is one of dozens of Yiddish expressions that Wex not only expertly translates and probes, but also psychoanalyzes with never-failing comic insight in constructing his depiction of the essential sensibilities of Yiddish, the Jews’ language of never-ending displacement, dissatisfaction, disillusion, deflation and denial. Wex argues that to understand Yiddish properly — he dubs it “the international language of nowhere” and “dybbuk-infested German for blasphemers” — one first must understand the history and sacred literature of the Jews since biblical times, with a particular focus on the long Jewish historical experience with goles, or exile.

Wex is at his best when tracing Yiddish expressions back to their Hebrew and Aramaic roots in biblical and talmudic sources, then mining their deeper meanings and what these reveal about the essential Yiddish mentalité. According to him, the history of the Jews as a people was inaugurated by what is arguably the most audacious collective kvetch in recorded civilization: Having been freed from centuries of brutal slavery by God’s spectacular plagues visited on their enslavers and then His dazzling miracles to enable their own escape from Egypt, the Jews almost immediately complain about the catering services in the Sinai desert. They’re sick of the manna, they’re thirsty, they want meat. Why couldn’t they have just stayed in Egypt, where they got free room and board, instead of having to die of starvation in the desert? Worst of all, what will the non-Jews say when they do indeed die in the desert? God responds to the Israelites’ astonishingly ungrateful kvetching with what Wex defines as the counterkvetch.

God decides to answer the Israelites’ complaints about the food in the desert by giving them something to kvetch about. The Jews want meat instead of manna? Moses tells them: “God’s going to give you meat and you’re going to eat it! Not one day or two days; not five days or 10 days or 20 days. But for a month you’re going to eat it, until it’s coming out of your noses” (Numbers 11:19-20).

Every demanding child of Yiddish-speaking parents has encountered a well-worn version of this maddening, all-purpose counter-kvetch to a simple, innocent request (though Wex doesn’t cite it explicitly). The child wants ice cream? “Ikh vell dir bald gebn ayz-kreem!” (“Oh, I’ll give you ice cream, all right!”) the parent retorts. Unlike the biblical paradigm, though, this really means “No!”

Wex contends that almost two millennia after the biblical period, Yiddish became the most effective vehicle ever to express “dos pintele Yid,” the essential spark of a Yid since ancient times, particularly that which always has differentiated him from the goy. Yiddish, more than just a language and less than most languages, embodies a skeptical state of mind, a discouraging posture and a perennially suspicious attitude toward an ever-hostile world. Yiddish is, as Wex illustrates abundantly, fundamentally a language of exile (goles) and alienation, and it has developed hundreds of expressions to convey the Yid’s jaundiced view of life, which centuries of displacement and oppression have engendered.

Beginning with a chapter on the linguistic and cultural foundations of the kvetch (“Kvetch-que C’est?”), and ending with myriad Yiddish expressions for death (“It Should Happen to You: Death in Yiddish”), Wex explores just about every aspect of exilic Jewish life, as reflected in Yiddish idiom. The chapters, “The Yiddish Curse: You Should Grow Like an Onion” and “Sex in Yiddish: Too Good for the Goyim,” are particularly rich (and shmutzig). Wex’s 10-page discussion of the various forms of corporal punishment and insults meted out to generations of Jewish children by kheyder-melamdim (Hebrew school teachers) is a fine example of the author’s ability to produce a long and ribald rant that would turn comic Dennis Miller green with envy. His long, descriptive list of the forms of assault at the melamed’s disposal (the knip, shnel, patsh, zets, klap, flem, frask and, finally, the much-dreaded khmal, whose victim will be so knocked out as to “see Cracow and Lemberg”) will have readers falling out of their chairs, as will the melamed’s extensive repertoire for demeaning his students’ intelligence. Beyond being physically assaulted, the less gifted kheyder student risked being called any, or all, of the following: nar (fool), shoyte (moron), sheygets (non-Jew), shtik fleysh mit oygen (piece of dead meat with eyes), puts mit oyren (prick with ears), puts mit a kapelyush (prick in a hat), goylem af reyder (golem on wheels) and shoyte ben pikholts (the idiot son of a woodpecker). As for the institutions of the kheyder and its melamed, Wex offers this insight:

Airless and overcrowded, full of preadolescents forced to trudge through steaming jungles of syllogisms, bubbe-mayses and kid-eating prohibitions — you can’t touch your hair while praying, you can’t pet a dog on Shabbes or go swimming during the hottest three weeks of the year — the kheyder had to be run by a combination of prison guard, exegete and child psychologist. But we’re in goles; we got the melamed instead.

Wex is a rare combination of Jewish comic and scholarly cultural analyst. Between his lines, brimming with linguistic comedy, there is a more serious message in “Born to Kvetch,” one that includes a trenchant, basically fair, critique of the earnestly humorless, secular enthusiasts of “modern Yiddish,” particularly the advocates of what is known as klal shprakh — the standardized version of the language invented mainly for academic purposes by the founders of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. While klal shprakh certainly fulfills an important need for, say, classroom instruction, it is not, never was and, Wex argues, can never be an adequate replacement for the idiomatic, natural, mimetic Yiddish of native speakers, so steeped in what Yiddish’s greatest scholar, Max Weinreich, famously coined, “derekh ha-Shas,” (the pathways of the Talmud). Other than a handful of klal shprakh devotees — described by Wex as “strident nudniks talking to their children as if they were all speaking Yiddish on ‘Meet the Press'” — most of today’s native Yiddish speakers are Chasidim of Hungarian origin, whose Yiddish is incomprehensible to those who know only klal shprakh. And, as Wex wryly observes: “Klal shprakh has adherents; Chasidim have babies.”

The vexing (or, should I say “Wexing”?) problem that lovers of Yiddish must face after reading this marvelous book is: What kind of a future might this bountiful and beautiful language — one that, Wex observes, “likes to argue with everybody about everything” — have in an America of catastrophic Jewish cultural loss? In this era of unprecedented Jewish success and comfort, when most Jews desire little more than to imagine that their long and bitter exile — whose conditions nurtured all that is so rich, moving and comical about Yiddish — is a thing of the past, and when the main association most American Jews have with Yiddish is happy, campy klezmer music, can we find a way (to paraphrase Jesse Jackson) to “keep kvetch alive?”

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward.

Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University, and a consultant for academic affairs at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

 

It’s Not Your Zayde’s Klezmer Anymore


Musician Eric Stein felt disillusioned with rock ‘n’ roll. He spent years slogging away in a band without “making it,” so he started looking for something else.

He considered being a history professor, but then, a new instrument and an old style of music changed his mind.

The instrument was a mandolin and the music klezmer.

“There was level of musical sophistication that goes with the kind of music you can play on the mandolin, and my intention was to start a new acoustic-fusion thing, with an emphasis on string and wind instruments,” said Stein, who went on to form Beyond the Pale, a klezmer-fusion band.

“I had been brought up as a secular Jew, and I didn’t know much about Jewish music except that it was dorky,” said Stein on the phone from Toronto, where his band is based. “But when klezmer got hot a few years ago, I found that the music really spoke to me on a cultural level. All the time, I was trying to play other people’s music, but this is the music of my family and my history.”

Stein’s approach to klezmer — seeing it as part of his heritage, but wanting to put an innovative, modern stamp on it, is typical of today’s klezmer revival. More and more musicians are attracted to the music, but want to move it beyond its European folk roots.

Hence, bands like Beyond the Pale fuse klezmer with reggae, jazz, ska and bluegrass music. As a result, klezmer keeps one foot in its shtetl past and another in the post-modern present.

“That’s why we called the band Beyond the Pale, because the expression means something that is unexpected and beyond the bounds,” Stein said. “[The name] refers to the Jewish roots of the band, but it also refers to the idea that we want to get outside of the rules — to pay homage to the traditions, but at the same time express ourselves.”

“Consensus” is the name of Beyond the Pale’s new CD, but while the title implies harmonic accord, even compromise, the tunes on the CD do not. Although not disharmonious, the tunes startle the listener with their complex boldness.

In “Whassat,” for instance, the 10th song on the CD, a clarinet melody starts off plaintive and wailing, only to be overlaid by a thumping base beat that builds into a rhythmic crescendo that is less “Tevye” and more jazz club.

In “Skalavaye,” Beyond the Pale gives a modern, ska-tinged rendition of a 1940s Yiddish classic, with contemporary nods to Yiddish humor. “Halevai (I only wish that) I was a keg of beer,” warbles vocalist Josh Dolgin. “So you could quench your thirst with me, my dear'”

For Stein, the CD, a live recording of a Toronto concert, epitomizes the new direction of klezmer.

“Historically, klezmer music was just about extinct by the mid-60s, for all sorts of different reasons, such as demographics and the Holocaust,” Stein said. “So for the first 15 to 20 years of the klezmer revival, [which started in the 1970s], the overriding influence was about ‘Let’s rescue what was forgotten and bring it back.’ But in the 1990s, we have the second generation of the klezmer revival, and that is when things really started to evolve. [The musicians] were marrying klezmer to jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, funk and reggae.”

Klezmer was not only becoming musically assimilated, but moving beyond the confines of the Jewish community. Stein is the only member of his five-piece band who is Jewish, and the band’s audiences have also changed.

No longer do klezmer bands attract only the bubbes and zaydes who remember the music from the old days. Now, in many venues, klezmer audiences can be primarily non-Jewish.

“People from within the Jewish community are embracing it, and using it as a way to express their own cultural heritage, but it is also having a life outside of the Jewish community altogether,” said Martin Van de Ven, Beyond the Pale’s clarinetist. “It has become [a style of music] with its own direction and way of doing things. More and more musicians are getting involved with it….”

“It is really evolving beyond just a Jewish form of music,” he said.

Beyond the Pale will perform June 1 at 9:30 p.m. at Tangier Restaurant, 2138 Hillcrest Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 666-8666. For more information on the band, visit

Brand Israel


 

What do you think about when you hear the word Israel?

Chances are if you’re like most Americans, when you hear Israel, you think war. Ask most Americans to free-word associate with the word “Israel” and they’d probably say: terrorists, Palestinians, danger and conflict.

At best.

At worst, oppression and ethnic cleansing.

But there are people out there who are trying to change that.

One of them is Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of Israel 21c, a California-based media advocacy group that tries to promote Israel “beyond the conflict,” its Web site says. On the site (www.Israel21c.com) are articles primarily about technology, health and business — anything but the conflict.

“Our modern brand is in trouble,” Weinberg told a group of Los Angeles Jewish leaders who gathered last week to discuss branding and advocacy on Israel at the Israeli consulate.

The brand he talks about, of course, is Israel. In America, “Israel is better known than liked,” Weinberg said, referring to a recent Young & Rubicam survey that measured Israel as a brand, to discover people’s emotional attachment to it.

Mainstream Americans — especially college students — have a lot of emotions toward Israel; attachment is another story. Weinberg’s point: Change the subject.

“The ‘Israel-Palestine Conflict’ is a no-win hasbara war,” said businessman Jonathan Medved, the main speaker of the morning. “Whoever sets the terms of the debates wins. If we continue to argue only on this turf, then even the best ‘ambassador’ is doomed to failure.”

This message wasn’t exactly popular with some meeting participants, who spend much of their time on campus battling pro-Palestinian groups and engaged in the hasbara, or advocacy, wars.

But, if you accept Medved and Weinberg’s logic, what is a pro-Israel advocate to do?

They do not advise putting all the advocates out of business. They do believe in changing the mix — taking the focus off the conflict.

Medved is the founder and general partner of Israel Seed Partners, an Israel-focused venture capital fund of $262 million. In 2004, he said, $1.46 billion was invested in Israel (up 45 percent from 2003), with 55 percent of the total dollars invested from outside Israel.

Of course foreign investment is good for Israel; and it also may profit investors, as well. After all, Israel is a hotbed of technology, creating everything from computer chips to voice technology.

But can changing the subject from the conflict to technology really help?

Medved said it reaches out to core constituencies in America.

“It speaks to Jews, makes them proud and mobilizes them,” he said, noting that a technology pitch also appeals to Christians, the Asian community and the business community.

The concept, of course, is to appeal to Americans’ self-interest, be it business, health or technology, and have them associate Israel with those concepts.

How will this help, though, on campus, where the battle is about the conflict?

Medved has one word: Divestment. He tells a story about a meeting at Carnegie Mellon University on how to divest from Israel. One student stood up and said something to the effect of, “Wait a minute. Do you mean I have to stop using my computer? My credit card? My voice mail? Forget it!”

The point is: Americans are too invested in Israel to divest. Consider that Teva pharmaceuticals is the largest distributor of generic pills in America, or that most laptops contain a chip produced in Israel — it wouldn’t be easy to boycott Israeli products. (Although, as someone at the meeting pointed out, divestment could target specific industries, like the military. And just targeting tourism could have a devastating effect.)

It’s not only about defending against divestment, Medved said. It’s about encouraging investment before the subject becomes divestment.

Medved advocates hosting investment lectures at business schools, science schools. Forget the social sciences, he said.

Israel certainly is about more than the conflict. It’s about great food, innovative art, cutting-edge music; it has pioneered in fields of democracy, religion and the judicial system (although it certainly has farther to go on all these fronts).

Would an American form a better opinion of Israel after learning that Israeli technology produced his computer chip or provided her affordable medicine or developed their uncle’s artificial heart or manufactured my cheap Gap clothing? (OK that last one’s not technology, but it’s important to me.)

I don’t know.

The truth is — and I suspect Medved and Weinberg would agree — the conflict in Israel is the elephant in the room that must be addressed. And the peace process is the best hope Israel has for improving its image.

On the other hand, people are tired of hearing about the conflict. And Israel is about so much more than the struggle. So a campus event addressing another subject — from Israel’s venture-capital opportunities to Israeli films — might not alter perceptions, but it could inspire a second look or a deeper one. It might make someone willing to listen.

 

One Historian’s Look at How Jews Shaped the Modern Age


 

“The Jewish Century,” by Yuri Slezkine. (Princeton University Press, $29.95).

Yuri Slezkine opens this major new book by declaring: “The modern age is the Jewish age, and the 20th century, in particular, is the Jewish century.” This assertion may ring bells.

Anti-Semites have long claimed that Jews, a miniscule fraction of the world’s population, exert a disproportionate influence, be it in local settings, such as fin de si?cle “Judapest” (as Budapest was known) or through that irrepressible literary trope, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Along comes a university-trained historian and suggests that, indeed, the modern age has been permeated through and through by Jewish influence.

But before we leap to a quick and erroneous conclusion, Slezkine is no anti-Semite. He is a gifted historian from Berkeley who has written a big, provocative and brilliant book.

Indeed, in a year of big books that offer intriguing new perspectives on the Jewish condition — Philip Roth’s counterfactual “The Plot Against America” and Jonathan Sarna’s “American Judaism” come to mind — Slezkine’s “The Jewish Century” may be the most important. And what is most intriguing in the book is the claim that those qualities that the Jews have historically embodied and still represent — social mobility, economic ingenuity, intellectual achievement — are the defining features of the modern age, all the more so in the era of globalization.

Now one may agree that Jews have embodied these qualities, perhaps more than any other group. And yet, it seems premature, at the very least, to suggest that these properties have won out over their opposites: economic stasis, national-ethnic tribalism and cultural revanchism.

Could we not argue as plausibly that the 20th century was the century of genocide, or totalitarianism, or capitalism, or, perhaps, of the Americans? It is certainly the case that Jews figured prominently in some or many of the century’s dramas.

Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein surely had a major hand in defining the cultural and intellectual direction of the century. And it may well be that the Shoah is the paradigmatic act of genocide — and anti-Semitism, the longest and most enduring of hatreds.

But it still strikes me as triumphalist and tunnel-visioned to award the entire 20th century, no less the whole modern age, to the Jews. This Judeo-centric vision, while framed in most idiosyncratic fashion by Slezkine, has more popular (and misguided) versions of which we should be cautious: assertions of the unreplicable uniqueness either of Jewish achievement or of Jewish tsuris that wrench the actual Jewish experience out of its deeply embedded context.

Despite these reservations about the book’s core thesis, I hasten to add my admiration — I dare say envy — for “The Jewish Century.” It is a work of staggering erudition, literary grace and most precious of all, big ideas. While one may disagree with its big ideas, it is hard to avoid being stimulated by them. It is equally hard to deny the book’s contribution to our understanding of modern Jewish history.

Not only does Slezkine shed new light on largely unknown chapters of the Jewish experience in Soviet Russia; he also fleshes out the personality of one of the most vexing and elusive characters in the modern Jewish experience: the non-Jewish Jew.

A Russian-born historian of partial Jewish origin, Slezkine happened on to this book by chance. Initially, he was interested merely in producing a textured social history of life in a certain apartment building in Moscow. This point of entry soon led him to a broader domain of inquiry: the story of Soviet Jewish communists, a fair number of whom populated the apartment in question.

Slezkine used these Jewish communists, a few of whom were his own relatives, to unfold an even larger story: the unsurpassed success of Jews in gaining access to positions of prestige and power in the Soviet Union in the early decades after the Bolshevik Revolution, only to end up — after Stalin’s purges began — as one of the most anti-Soviet and oppressed groups of all.

This compelling and tragic story led Slezkine to yet another vast new domain of inquiry: the migration of millions of Russian Jews from that large chunk of Eastern Europe (including parts of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine) known as the Pale of Settlement, into major urban centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg in the late,19th century.

Slezkine presents in “The Jewish Century” a thick and nuanced description of this Jewish migratory stream that, along with Benjamin Nathans’ “Beyond the Pale” (2002), sheds important new light on an enormously consequential — and yet under-researched — movement of Jewish life and culture.

One of the key innovations of Slezkine’s approach is to juxtapose this migratory current to two other — and more notable — currents issuing from the Pale around the same time: the large stream of Eastern European Jews to the United States and the smaller, but influential, current of Russian Jewish immigrants to Palestine. Slezkine associates these tributaries with three of the five daughters of Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman,” the hero of the classic “Fiddler on the Roof.”

He uses this literary cover to suggest that Tevye’s daughters, emblematic of most turn-of-the-century Russian Jews, were of one mind in seeking exit from the confines of the shtetl but disagreed considerably over their preferred locus of resettlement. Thus, in Slezkine’s version, Bielke followed her husband to the “goldene medine” of America, Chava made off to the land of milk and honey and Hodel became a revolutionary and emigrated from her parochial shtetl to a major urban center in Russia.

In tracing these three paths, Slezkine offers far more than an homage to Aleichem. His use of Tevye’s daughters as vectors of historical change belies an unusually keen and subversive literary sense. This sense is manifest both in Slezkine’s own writing (which, owing to his formative upbringing in another language, evokes the likes of Conrad and Brodsky) and in the breadth of his reading. Indeed, “The Jewish Century” is, among other virtues, a feast of literary delights, with extended borrowings from and learned excurses on Pushkin, Proust, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Joseph Roth, Osip Mandelstam, Vassily Grossman and Roth, to mention but a few.

At the same time, the book is also a piece of uncommon scholarly virtuosity. While a newcomer to the precincts of Jewish history, Slezkine reveals a commanding knowledge of the Eastern European Jewish experience, and, particularly, of the Jewish “immigrants” to big Russian cities.

His perspective is decidedly not that of an insider — what we might call an internalist Jewish historian — who relies on Jewish communal records or self-consciously Jewish cultural expressions to tell his story. Rather, Slezkine is an externalist, and this has a number of important implications.

First, his chief interest is not in the overtly and avowedly Jewish historical personality, but in those whom Isaac Deutscher famously called “non-Jewish Jews,” those hundreds of thousands who willingly surrendered a distinctive Jewish cultural idiom in favor of a more universalist political agenda or cosmopolitan social milieu. Through a mix of conceptual analysis and statistical evidence, Slezkine traces the rise and fall of these Jews, particularly intellectuals and political activists, who abandoned their Jewish origins to embrace the Soviet communist vision, only to become the chief enemies of the very system in which they had invested so much blood, sweat and faith.

To the extent that these figures were far less identifiable and visible than their Israeli and American Jewish cousins, studying them requires a fine and nuanced set of historical tools. Slezkine makes masterful use of these tools, and his treatment of the metaphorical figure of Hodel and her Russian Jewish descendants is the finest portion of the book. More ambitiously, it amounts to a kind of Jewish counterhistory in which the non-Jewish Jew stands at the center.

There is a second way in which Slezkine’s externalist perspective becomes clear. It is in his tendency to adopt a sweeping comparative perspective in studying Jews. Throughout the book, the Jewish experience is placed alongside and in contrast to that of many other groups, especially fellow Diaspora travelers like ethnic Chinese, Indians and Gypsies.

This tack provides him with an opportunity to make the bold equation of Jewish and modern mentioned at the outset, although, in fact, the origin of Slezkine’s analytical framework lies in Greek mythology. The world used to be divided, he argues, into two distinct groups: Mercurians, who were fleet and fast-moving service nomads, and Apollonians, who were landed, rural food gatherers. Historically, Jews were the classic Mercurians — “urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious and occupationally flexible.”

In the modern age, these qualities have become more widely disseminated and absorbed — to the point that they seem to blend seamlessly into what we routinely call today “globalization.” Through this process of dissemination, much of the world has become Mercurian. In that Jews are the Mercurians par excellence, the past century was, by extension, “the Jewish century.”

In laying out this stark Mercurian-Apollonian divide, Slezkine recalls grand social theorists of the past like Karl Marx and Max Weber (as well as less notable figures like Werner Sombart and Thorsten Veblen) who have advanced sweeping claims about the social function of the Jews. But he also exposes himself to the congenital weaknesses that theorizing of this scale produces.

For example, beyond similarities in their economic functions, do we gain much by comparing and then conflating the cultural experience of Jews, Gypsies and ethnic Chinese into a single Mercurian type? And even among Jews, themselves, does the Mercurian label really tell us very much?

Imagine if we were to assemble in one early-20th century Parisian salon the following characters: Aleichem, Walter Benjamin, Nathan Birnbaum, Freud, Rosa Luxembourg, Max Nordau, Baron Edmond de Rothschild and Leon Trotsky. Would this mix of capitalist and communist, Orthodox and atheist, Zionist and cosmopolite find common cause, indeed, speak a single Mercurian language? It is highly doubtful.

And if we have difficulty affixing the unified label Mercurian to this group, all the more so for the modern age at large. After all, the potent and enduring force of nationalism, with its spasmodic outbursts of ethnic violence, has marked much of that era. This pervasive neotribalism is the embodiment not of Mercurianism, but of what Slezkine calls the Apollonian instinct.

Accordingly, it seems a stretch to label our age Mercurian. Perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of a ceaseless battle between Mercurian and Apollonian impulses, if not of outright Apollonian victory.

Both the porousness of Slezkine’s opposing categories and the premature victory accorded Mercurians (i.e., Jews) in the modern age ultimately undoes the grand theory undergirding “The Jewish Century.” But the merit of this book does not rest on the theory’s ultimate success. Through his wide-ranging erudition, Slezkine challenges us to think about deep structural patterns in human and Jewish history, as well as about the uniqueness of the Jewish historical experience.

Moreover, his wide comparative lens brings into focus three distinct Jewish paths in the modern age, two of which are rather well trodden (America and Israel) and one of which (the Soviet Russian) receives rich new attention. The effect is a fascinating literary and historical journey that leads to a rewriting of modern Jewish history, a kind of counterhistory populated by a motley crew of mainly non-Jewish Jews. At once ubiquitous and marginal, privileged and persecuted, Mercurian and Apollonian, these figures rise up against their creator to demonstrate that the modern Jewish condition is complex, diverse and resistant to reduction.

At the same time, they empower their creator to ask the big and important question of whether the age in which they live is created in their own intriguing image. At the end of the day, I think it is not. But Slezkine is owed a big debt for forcing us to think deeply about our own purchase on the claim of Jewish uniqueness.

 David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA.

 

Insta-Love


 

It happened so quickly I couldn’t believe it. After a seemingly endless period of F & L’s (first and last dates, as I fondly call them), I met him.

When I walked into my favorite vegetarian restaurant I was relieved I’d decided to forgo my usual dazzling sweatpants/no makeup look. Finally — someone adorable both on the inside and out (that’s so rare in Los Angeles). He was witty and athletic; he came from a good family and loved dogs — will wonders never cease? They didn’t, I discovered when he walked me to me car and kissed me good night. I don’t know how I managed to drive home without crashing.

Within a month, he told me he loved me. He also invited me to Passover with his family. At the seder, he leaned over to me, put his hand in mine and said, “Honey, it’s our first Passover together.”

Hypnotized by his casual show of abundant affection, I just squeezed his hand and smiled.

My erstwhile prince topped his Passover pronouncement with a steady stream of references to our future together. By month two, he had asked me for a drawer, and slowly started to move his belongings into my home. The insta-home invasion had begun. First there was clothing, then toiletries, followed by his prized kitchen possession — a cast iron skillet. I was dizzy from the swiftness of it all and startled by the rapidity. But at our age, I told myself, maybe this is what happens. When it’s right it’s right. Right? By month three, we were planning vacations together and had intertwined our lives as if we had been dating for ages. Yes sir, we were already entrenched in the insta-relationship

And why not? We were two divorcees in our 40s who had considerable experience in dating. Why shouldn’t affairs of the heart transpire quickly? It’s an instant gratification society, where we can reach our friends instantaneously, purchase presents instantaneously and get dates online instantaneously. Why shouldn’t love be instant, too?

I’ve noticed the insta-relationship happening to my friends, as well. Sarah fell desperately in love perilously fast. Both she and her guy were weary from the endless Internet dating and felt that magical connection right away. They were intimate in no time and were introduced to each other’s families in a matter of just a few months. One day she called me to brag that they had made the key exchange.

“What is a key exchange?” I asked her.

“We exchanged house keys and burglar alarm codes,” she said triumphantly.

Did that mean that they were committing forever? Sarah certainly thought so. But apparently her paramour didn’t. She now refers to the affair as a drive-by relationship.

Mine was not a drive-by. We were taking a more scenic route.

One summer evening, I took my prince to see the revival of the Broadway musical, “Brigadoon,” about a fantastical love affair. Brigadoon was a bucolic, old-fashioned land of enchantment that existed in the mist above the Scottish Highlands. Every 100 years, for just a day, the town would return to Earth and the people that lived there were never touched by the realities of modern life. Just like us.

We had already been together for seven months. Seven perfect months, untouched by reality of modern life. For me, at least. That was until I promised to buy the new mattress he wanted, thinking it would be a good investment for our future. But this led to his chilling reply: “Honey, I don’t have a crystal ball into our future.”

Reality slammed into my life like a car blindly coming around dead man’s curve. Brigadoon vanished back into the Scottish Highlands. The fairy dust was clearing from our eyes. That was the beginning of the end.

What happened to my insta-love? What happened to the IM/eBay culture of instant gratification? Could it be that relationships need a stronger foundation than rushed expressions of sentiment? Have we become so impatient with finding “the one” that we dive right in without taking a good look at what/whom we’re jumping into? Yes, we had instant gratification, but maybe it caused us to suppress our patience, prudence and that great equalizer of all — the benefit of time.

Of course I only see this in retrospect. So now, for the future, I am going take some inspiration from “Brigadoon” and despite the crazy, hectic world we live in, I resolve to take things more slowly in my life — particularly when it comes to relationships. I’m now going to take time to search for a pair of special glasses that will stop the rose-colored glare and help me stay grounded in the reality of relationships.

Let’s just say that this purchase will definitely not be from the Internet.

Elizabeth Much is a partner with Much and House Public Relations, where she runs the entertainment division. She can be reached via e-mail at emuch@muchandhousepr.com.

 

Curb Your Verbosity


 

Do rabbis have to be wordy? Actually, no — or at least, not according to Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe. For the past eight years, Wolpe has been doing the unthinkable and actually condensing his lofty thoughts into succinct, easy-to-read-and-digest 200-word essays in the New York-based Jewish Week. Recently, Wolpe published “Floating Takes Faith, Ancient Wisdom for the Modern World,” (Behrman House), an anthology of his best columns. The selections in the book attempt to blend secular culture with Judaism, to prove that we have as much to learn from 17th century French aphorists like Francois de La Rochefoucauld as we do from Jewish scholars like Ibn Gabirol.

“No one tradition has a monopoly on wisdom,” Wolpe said. “I also want to help people learn to look for Jewish messages in the culture around them.”

Wolpe said that his desire to write a shorter column came as he was writing longer ones, but they were “infrequently published and infrequently read.” Once he started cutting words, the columns got a bigger response.

“When people see a rabbi’s name and a lot of words, they automatically assume that they are about to read a lot of superfluous stuff, and it’s hard for people to commit in a paper to read an entire column,” he said. “It’s much easier for them to read a brief, punchy point. And I also felt as though the central lessons that I had to teach, even though they could all be expanded upon, could be expressed succinctly.”

Wolpe’s goal with this book and with his columns is to achieve the most coveted accolade of all newspaper columnists — to have his column posted on someone’s refrigerator.

“I want to be put up there right next to that 30-year-old Art Buchwald column that has turned yellow,” he said.

In the meantime, he is continuing to write his columns and keeping them short.

“There is something to be said for brevity,” Wolpe mused. “But not too much, because you have to be brief.”

 

Sins the Rabbis Left Out


The writers of the machzor were pretty comprehensive in listing the multitude of sins we commit as a community over the course of the year. Some of them — such as foul speech, unscrupulous business affairs, sexual immorality and fraud — are remarkably relevant today. But the authors couldn’t have envisioned some of the temptations offered by contemporary society.

So here are some modern infractions for which you might need to atone:

For the sin of forwarding dumb jokes via e-mail;

And for the sin of forwarding e-mails which insist that you forward them or suffer the consequences.

For the sin of watching shows where people vote other people off the show;

And for the sin of watching shows where mothers admit to stealing their daughters’ boyfriends.

For the sin of cutting people off on the freeway;

And for the sin of flipping off the person who cuts you off on the freeway.

For the sin of talking on your cell phone while driving.

And for the sin of having cell phone conversations in public during which you broadcast graphic details about your love life or medical symptoms.

For the sin of using the Internet at the office to work on personal business.

And for the sin of neglecting to exit the ESPN Web site before your boss walks into your cubicle.

For the sin of buying things you don’t need because there’s a really good sale.

or the sin of paying $3 for a $1.50 cup of coffee.

For the sin of talking during High Holiday services;

And for the sin of rating the rabbi’s sermon as though it were an Olympic sporting event ("I’ll give it a 6.5").

For the sin of leaving a whole package in the cupboard with just one cookie in it (you know who you are).

And for the sin of using family members’ exploits as fodder for newspaper articles (I know who I am).

For all these sins, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. — NSS

Israel Seminar Gives Teachers Refresher


When it came to modern Israel, Ziva London found herself living in the past. Having immigrated to the United States 23 years ago, the Jewish-day-school teacher recently realized that her concept of the Holy Land reflected the Israel she knew there as a citizen more than two decades ago. Talking to fellow Israeli teachers at B’nai Shalom Day School in Greensboro, N.C., London discovered that she wasn’t alone.

“We didn’t have the resources and knowledge of how Israel has been changing according to the international arena,” said London on a break between sessions at an Israel teacher education workshop at the University of Judaism (UJ).

Ziva and her colleagues were not the only educators wanting an educational update or a refresher course so that they could effectively teach students about the Jewish homeland. Seventy teachers from 13 states, Great Britain and Canada gathered Aug. 1-6 for the Pre-Collegiate Teacher Education Workshop on the History, Culture and Politics of Modern Israel, a seminar conducted by Emory University’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel and hosted by the UJ.

With a decline in tourism since the re-emergence of suicide bombings in key Israeli cities in 2001, fewer American Jews are visiting Israel. With less exposure to the realities of Israeli society, many Jewish educators feel that their knowledge of modern Israel is either limited or passé.

“A lot of people have antiquated ideas about Israel,” said Dr. Nadav Morag, the UJ’s director of the Center for Israel Studies and chair of the political science department. “This is not the Israel of the kibbutz and people dancing in the fields, which is what a lot of Americans have images of today. Every 10 years it’s a different country.”

Between changes in the role of the Israeli army, exports focusing on high-tech products rather than agriculture and the influx of Russian immigrants, keeping one’s finger on the pulse of the ever-changing country can seem like a full-time job.

In addition, many American Jews are baffled by the idea of some Israelis’ secular, national Jewish identities. Others don’t comprehend Israel’s parliamentary government compared to the presidential government in the United States.

Pat Glascom, a workshop participant and an Israel studies teacher at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Allentown, Penn., was relieved to get some clarity on the differences between American and Israeli democracies.

“With the American presidential election approaching, I plan to have my students make a comparative study of the two democracies,” said the religious-school teacher.

For educators who are up to date on Israel, many still struggle with the task of trying to instill within students a connection to the Jewish state.

Rebecca Zimmerman, the educational director of Contra Midrasha in Walnut Creek, was baffled when two of her teenage students failed to understand her desire to visit Israel.

“I tried every angle I could think of,” said Zimmerman, of her struggle to explain possible motivations. “An emotional connection to the state of Israel, a political fascination, historical importance, religious, a spiritual homeland or even a simple cultural connection to other Jews. No matter what I said, they would not sway from their thought that Israel was not important.”

The UJ workshop focused on how to overcome such obstacles.

While some Jewish teachers struggle with student apathy, others must tactfully facilitate in-class political debates involving Israel.

Matan Agam, a senior at Milken Community High School, said that political discussions occasionally arise in his history, Hebrew and Jewish law classes.

“If there’s a bombing or something drastic, teachers open it up to discussion among students and they’ll moderate,” Agam said. “The opinions vary greatly among students and we usually get good points from both sides.”

In light of last summer’s front-page Los Angeles Times story about a former Shalhevet faulty member exposing his seventh-grade class to Palestinian points of view, some students feel their Jewish school are too rigid when it comes to Israeli politics.

“The school claims to be really open-minded, but when it comes to Israel, they’re not,” Shalhevet senior Becky Dab said. “They try to make it seem like everyone else is wrong and what the Israelis are doing is right.”

Her father, Jon Dab, is satisfied with the school’s position.

“We’re extremely supportive of Israel, so we don’t perceive anything [at Shalhevet] as being untoward as far as viewpoints being expressed.”

As the topic of Israel in the Jewish community seems to trigger black-and-white thinking, another obstacle is American Jews’ tendency to view Israel in an idealistic light.

“A lot of American Jews put Israel on a pedestal,” said Nadav, emphasizing the need for American to think of the country as “a normal society. If they build Israel up as an example of perfection, they’ll be disappointed when they find out it’s not perfect.”

For more information on the institute, visit www.emory.edu/COLLEGE/JewishStudies/ismi.html .

Membership Briefs


Humanistic High Holidays

Three secular humanist groups — Adat Chaverim, Society for Humanistic Judaism and The Sholem Community — will hold High Holidays services in the Los Angeles area.

Adat Chaverim, whose “celebrations” have been led by a madrich, or trained lay leader, since its founding four years ago, will welcome an ordained humanist rabbi, Miriam Jerris, for the first time at its Yom Kippur service.

In another first, the services will be held at the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in Sherman Oaks, instead of the Methodist church, which has housed Adat Chaverim until now.

“It’s nice for our 65 members and their guests to come together at a Jewish venue,” co-founder Joe Steinberg said.

The Society for Humanistic Judaism will meet in West Los Angeles, and The Sholem Community in Culver City and Rancho Park.

For more information, contact: Adat Chaverim, (818) 623-7363, www.vchj.net; Society for Humanistic Judaism, (213) 891-4303, www.shjla.org; and Sholem Community, (818) 760-6625, www.sholem.org. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Biblical Meets Digital

An Israeli company has come up with a unique way of helping people search through the myriad Jewish religious texts that have accumulated since the Torah was given on Sinai 5,000 years ago. DBS International has put more than 500 texts, including the entire text of the Tanach and the Talmud, onto two CD-ROMs called Torah Treasures.

“It’s like the Concordance but much more efficient,” said Rabbi Yoseph Gubits, the director of the American office for DBS International, referring to the classic Jewish reference texts that lists the sources for any mention of a name or place in the Tanach and Talmud. “You type in a word, and then in a few seconds you receive a list of all the places that word is mentioned. If you click on [the listing] you get the whole page, and then if you click on it again you get the commentaries on that page. And you can search through any or all of the books.”

DBS sells two versions of Torah Treasures. Version nine has 512 books on it and costs $310; version 10 has 562 books and costs $420.

Gubits thinks that the CD-ROMs will be indispensable to rabbis and teachers who need to prepares talks and classes.

Currently, the texts on the CD-ROMs are only available in Hebrew.

For more information, visit www.dbsus.com or call (718) 437-7337. — Gaby Wenig, Staff Writer

Synaplex Revives Synagogues

This September, two Los Angeles-area temples will be among five new synagogues that will begin participating in the Synaplex Initiative, a program of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), which is designed to boost synagogue attendance.

Synaplex (a combination of synagogue and multiplex, as in movie theatres) is already in place at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, University Synagogue in Irvine and at nine other synagogues across the country.

Synaplex supplements the traditional Friday night prayer service with a range of options — anything from Torah-based yoga to a family-friendly pizza party, a community service project to a guest lecturer — to get people excited about Shabbat. Any or all of the activities could be going on in a Synaplex synagogue at the same time.

On average, Synaplex synagogues have seen their attendance increase by 78 percent on Friday evenings. Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills has increased its average attendance on Synaplex Shabbats by 940 percent.

“Synaplex is an expression of how the Sabbath can be celebrated in a way that speaks to modern individuals and families and restores the synagogue to its traditional position as a communal and spiritual center,” said Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of STAR.

For more information, visit www.starsynagogue.org . –GW

Frum Frenzy


Visitors trolling for casual sex on Craigslist.org last week were left scratching their heads over an unfamiliar reference that has surfaced in a flurry of recent postings.

"I keep seeing this term ‘Frum.’ Can somebody please clue me into what the hell that is?" wrote Jeff, a 30-year-old regular on the site.

"OK, I give up … what does ‘frum’ mean?" huffed another.

To the posters’ disappointment, frum (pronounced "froom") is not shorthand for a kinky new posture or adventurous attitude. It’s a Yiddish word that technically means "religiously observant," but for all intents and purposes is used by men and women who identify themselves as Orthodox Jews.

Jeff, an events planner who grew up Catholic in the Midwest, said he kept seeing requests from frum men and women seeking frum sexual partners.

"The only thing that was in my mind was ‘fru-strated, m-arried?’ I had no clue what it was," he said. "I didn’t realize it was an Orthodox Jewish person. From what I understand, they’re supposed to put a sheet between them when they have sex."

It turns out that the deeply religious have sexual tastes as mundane as the rest of us:

"Single frum guy for single frum girl for fun!" one 24-year-old wrote. "Married, frum guy looking for a frum girl (married or unmarried) for some NSA [no strings attached] fun. We can have good time ‘learning’ together," a 31-year-old posted.

"Frum married guy looking for frum guy to explore," wrote another, continuing: "I am a frum married 28-year-old guy … during the summer my wife will be upstate and I am looking to explore having sex with a man … please be frum."

That’s not to say that this frum frenzy hasn’t ushered in a whole range of heretofore unimaginable caveats such as "We could do as little as you want," written by a gentle soul seeking a frum woman, and "No Chasidish," written by a 24-year-old married Manhattanite, referring to the ultra-Orthodox denomination whose members wear black hats and suits and sport long sidelocks.

Or, less chastely, a poster seeking "Frum girls gone wild" for an orgy in Brooklyn, or another one advertising a Yahoo group for married frumsters seeking "extracurricular fun."

Though the posters are seeking members of their observant sects to romp in the sack with, none seem to be under the illusion that this is, well, kosher.

"Frum guy seeks frum girl for not such frum fun!" a 32-year-old wrote. And one might question whether picking someone from the notoriously tight-knit community would be a discreet move.

In case there were any doubts, Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, confirmed that Jewish law prohibits such shenanigans — either in the form of extramarital affairs or premarital sexual contact.

"Rabbis have taught that there is a prohibition of all contact of a sexual nature between male and female prior to marriage," he said, referring to Maimonides’ encyclopedic code of Jewish law. "But we’re not talking here about a man and a woman who are emotionally bonded and have difficulty with a specific Jewish law. We’re talking about people who are completely disconnected and lonely. It’s sad; it reflects the reality of our time."

Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, director of organizational development for the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, added that while traditional Judaism discourages sexual relations outside of marriage, "Historically some were permitted if the relationship was ongoing and committed" in the case of concubines.

"I assure you, they know very well that society doesn’t approve it — that’s why they’re going to the Net," he added. "If they belong to parts of a classically frum society, they can’t exactly go to a party and say, ‘Do you want to come back to my place?’"

"That’s so funny," said Jessica Ressler, 26, a Modern Orthodox divorce lawyer. "I just posted an ad on there for a nanny. I didn’t know they went on there for that."

Of course, it was only a matter of time before a class of frum frauds emerged on Craigslist. But if the missives from Orthodox neighborhoods are to be believed, where there are frum, there is desire.

"Are there any frum men here that want to meet for real?" one single gal wrote. "I am sick and tired of all the fakes here."

Article reprinted courtesy The New York Observer.


Anna Schneider-Mayerson is a writer living in New York City.

Kershaw Museum Plans Ethiopian Show


Timed to coincide with the Bowers Museum’s “Queen of Sheba” exhibit, the Kershaw Museum at Temple Beth El is organizing its own sampler exhibit of artworks by Jewish Ethiopians and Yemenites, who believe themselves to be the queen’s descendants.

The museum is seeking to borrow examples of Ethiopian and Yemenite art or artifacts from local collectors for possible exhibition, beginning Oct. 14. Descriptions and photos of the items should be submitted before Aug. 1 to Irene Breisacher, a volunteer at the Aliso Viejo synagogue, who is helping organize the exhibit.

“A lot of people went to Israel when the country was new and bought Yemenite art, but they didn’t tell you it was Yemenite,” said the museum’s director and founder, Norma Kershaw. “Ancient or modern, whatever people have” would be welcomed.

Typical works are silver Bible covers with fine filigree work. Ethiopian folk art is evident throughout Israel, produced by resettled Ethiopian Jews, who fled religious persecution and deteriorating economic conditions in their homeland en mass beginning in 1984.

Kershaw, who previously created exhibits on Chanukah and Israeli art with examples borrowed locally, hopes to fill three exhibit cases with at least 100 items. One person has offered Ethiopian costumes.

The exhibit’s logo is likely to be a pillow cover featuring King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which Kershaw obtained recently in Los Angeles from an importer promoting modern folk art by Ethiopian Israelis.

The Bowers’ Sheba exhibit will open Oct. 17 and will feature 100 treasures, some from the first century, chosen from the vast collections of the British Museum.

As part of an archeology trip to Yemen in 1985, Kershaw said she looked without success for scientific evidence to support the biblical legend. According to legend, Sheba ruled an ancient kingdom that prospered as a trading crossroads between Jerusalem and the Roman Empire; she was seduced and married to King Solomon around 950 B.C.E.

Potential lenders should contact Irene Briesacher at
(949) 837-1005 or by e-mail, irene@fea.net before Aug. 1.

Shalom Y’All


"Shalom Y’all" sounds suspiciously like a slogan designed to sell souvenirs to Jewish visitors in the American South, and indeed the phrase adorns T-shirts, mugs and other paraphernalia in the gift shop of Charleston’s Beth Elohim Synagogue.

But the drawled greeting is also common parlance amongst the Jews of South Carolina, who have enjoyed 300 years of virtually uninterrupted prominence and prosperity in this unexpectedly rich corner of the Diaspora.

Unexpected indeed is what the community of refugees preoccupied itself with after flocking to these shores in the 17th century. It was not only non-Jews who profited from rice and cotton plantations, kept slaves, presided over grand antebellum mansions, dueled with pearl-handled swords and engaged in a futile fight to defend the Confederate flag. Ex-Londoner Francis Salvador, elected to the South Carolina Congress in 1774, became not only America’s first Jew elected to high office but the first to die liberating his colony from British rule.

What brought the first, mainly Sephardic, Jews to Charleston was its remarkable religious tolerance, not to mention the economic prospects elevating them to a new aristocracy to which their Ashkenazi kinsmen who followed greedily aspired. Thus the shameful lust for slaves, the choice accessory of the period even for Jews paying annual lip service to their own release from slavery in Egypt. However, it was a high-principled Jewish grocer who redeemed the community by refusing to segregate his black customers in the dark days before civil rights prevailed.

As well as the exhibits celebrating Jewish life at the excellent Gibbes Museum of Art, there is much to delight the visitor to Charleston, whose beautiful and historic homes, churches and public buildings have been preserved in aspic by poverty. For more than a century after the Civil War, there was no money for urban renewal, though now the city is enjoying a boom, new buildings are creeping in and the slow pace of life associated with the South is confined in this city to Battery Park, where magnificent colonnaded mansions line streets lined with cobblestones brought from England. A plethora of horse-drawn carriages and trolleys tour the streets of the historic district, but the only way to get into the side streets and alleys, where so much of Charleston’s elegant residential life is played out, is to take a walking tour.

Ruth Miller covers Jewish history as well as all the general sights in her Charleston strolls, including handsome Beth Elohim, built in Greek-revival style in 1840 to serve a congregation already a century old. Against the trend of European synagogues designed for Ashkenazim but now used by larger, younger Sephardic congregations, this one has evolved in the opposite direction. It comes as a shock to find that while there is no separation of worshippers at Beth Elohim, where America’s Reform movement was founded in 1824, there is a gallery in place down the road at St. Michel’s Church, designed to separate not men and women but whites from blacks "and other strangers" in the bad old days.

You don’t need a tour guide to get into the handsome church or many of the town’s historic homes and gardens, since local groups — from august preservation societies to the flamboyant Hat Ladies of Charleston — are falling over themselves to open their doors to visitors. Away from the "Gone With the Wind" opulence of the townhouses — notably the 1818 Aiken-Rhett House, where antebellum urban life is faithfully showcased, Drayton Hall documents plantation life warts and all, and the Charleston Museum’s Heyward-Washington house offers a glimpse of the neighborhood that inspired the setting for "Porgy and Bess." When it comes to accommodations, there is an embarrassment of choices in Charleston, choc-a-bloc with historic inns. Opting for a modern red-brick hotel seems on the face of it bizarre, but Orient Express endowed its award-winning Charleston Place property with the kind of luxurious and festive atmosphere that must have prevailed in the heady, prosperous years of the Confederacy. Rooms are large and opulent, and the hotel’s grill room, presided over by double-Michelin-starred Bob Waggoner, offers a sumptuous dining experience.

But perhaps the finest food in the state is to be found at the Beaufort Inn, a favorite haunt of Tom Hanks, who filmed "Forrest Gump" in this delightful little seaside town, an hour’s drive south of Charleston. Like Charleston, Beaufort boasts a plethora of historic mansions but is a lot sleepier. One of its greatest charms is access to the marshy sea islands where the world’s finest cotton was once grown. Since the abolition of slavery the area has become a hotbed of African American culture; check out the acres of colorful and highly collectible folk art on view at the Red Piano Too gallery on St. Helena Island before continuing to Hunting Island State Park with its primeval jungle, wild beach and lighthouse. Lazybones might never get beyond the verandah of the beautifully appointed Beaufort Inn or the delightfully indolent urban pursuits — browsing excellent bookshops, fressing sundaes in the old-fashioned ice cream parlor or taking a slow Carolina horse-drawn buggy ride round town.

Golfers and serious shoppers are lavishly catered to nearby on swanky Hilton Head Island, with its pricey top-end resorts, championship courses and designer malls, but there is less specialized and more affordable seaside entertainment on offer a couple of hours’ drive north at Myrtle Beach, which must be America’s largest and most economically democratic resort. The Grand Strand, a fabulous stretch of wild, wide white beach stretches 60 miles from Shag, where the young and funky crowd hang out, all the way down to much posher Pawley’s Island. This may be the pleasantest place to stay, thanks to the Litchfield Plantation Inn, which offers period rooms, contemporary cottage and haute cuisine. Many guests never get beyond their private deck beside a creek lined with live oaks dripping Spanish moss, the state’s most evocative attribute. But it’s worth a 35-minute drive to seek out the high-quality live entertainment for which Myrtle Beach is famous, including top-class variety with a country twist at the Carolina Opry, Dolly Parton’s hokey North-vs.-South Dixie Stampede, tribute bands at Legends, and top rock and R&B acts at the House of Blues, where live music is served up free to outdoor diners and the folk art collection alone demands a trip. Culture vultures will enjoy the sculpture trail at nearby Brookgreen Gardens, where some magnificent 19th and 20th century pieces are displayed in a verdant setting.

Note that travel into the Carolinas is painless now with the opening of Charlotte as a gateway, its airport compact, efficient and a fine introduction to southern friendliness.

Courtesy of featurewell.com.

Spectacle and Sadism


Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which opened on Ash Wednesday, has inspired an argument over its revival of medieval Passion Play content, and whether such a project risks a revival of medieval-style, post-Passion Play Judeophobia. But there’s a closely related dimension of Gibson’s film that has so far received less attention, and which is at least as compelling: The movie is also a revival of medieval theatrical sadism.

Gibson’s film is controversial in part because of its unrelenting depiction of the violence visited on Jesus. According to one deeply impressed review by Texas broadcaster Jody Dean, posted on Religion Today, “The brutality, humiliation, and gore is almost inconceivable — and still probably doesn’t go far enough. The scourging alone seems to never end, and you cringe at the sound and splatter of every blow — no matter how steely your nerves.”

That is almost surely the kind of reaction that would have satisfied the creators of medieval religious stagecraft.

That is because the theater of the medieval and early modern periods was filled with depictions of cruelty, pain and torture, sometimes extending over days of spectacle. While the suffering of Jesus was a major theme of these presentations, there were many other tales, drawn from the Bible, Apocrypha and the lives of the saints, which featured scourging, flaying, beheading and every imaginable type of horror.

Jody Enders, a professor of French in Santa Barbara, has written extensively on such plays. In her most recent work, “Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends,” she describes a 15th-century presentation of the life of Saint Barbara that lasted for five days. On Day One, the pagan Barbara becomes a Christian. On Day Two, she refuses her father’s order to marry. On Day Three, her angry father orders her to be tied to a pillar and beaten; he will eat his supper as he watches. On Day Four, Barbara is stripped naked and scourged harshly, salt and vinegar are rubbed into her wounds, her breasts are cut off, and she is led to a cell and ordered to lie down on a bed of sharp rocks. On Day Five, she is tied naked to a nail-studded barrel and rolled. Finally, her father beheads her.

Those who staged such scenes had become notably inventive at presenting pain and bloodletting in a convincing manner (convincing by contemporary standards, anyway). Mel Gordon, a theatrical historian at Berkeley, notes, for example, that “Promptbooks from the Middle Ages reveal an awful and bloody display of animal parts that realistically substituted for performers’ severed limbs and organs.”

Onstage flayings and beheadings could be achieved through carefully crafted outfits, body makeup, and dummies. Indeed, in “Death by Drama,” Enders writes about unconfirmed period reports that, on at least one occasion, a condemned prisoner was included in a drama and actually beheaded onstage. This is, as she notes, the exact equivalent of modern “snuff movie” legends. (Enders concludes that, for common-sense reasons, such an event was extremely unlikely.)

There is so much horror on the medieval stage that modern scholars of the period are themselves aghast, and have long been at odds over what to make of it all. Some have been troubled by features of medieval drama that are potentially applicable to Gibson’s film, too. For example, there are scholars who have concluded that the stage tortures of Jesus were amplified well-beyond those recorded in the Gospels, while others have attributed a pathological pleasure to the spectators, many of whom might travel considerable distances to see such spectacles.

It’s not necessarily that simple. The medieval world was, after all, heir to a history of sadistic spectacle that was well-known in antiquity, and one might even credit the Church with transforming an established tradition of public cruelty into a “moral” form. Enders herself has noted that staging the torment of the saints and of Jesus — whose suffering obviously has an essential meaning for believing Christians-evinced pity. In that context, Texas broadcaster Jody Dean’s sympathetic review of Gibson’s film features some especially interesting passages, such as this one: “What you’ve heard about how audiences have reacted is true. There was no sound after the film’s conclusion. No noise at all. No one got up. No one moved. The only sound one could hear was sobbing.”

Nevertheless, not all cruelty and suffering in these plays are staged to elicit compassion or pity. When the Jewish heroine Judith beheads the sleeping Holofernes, for example, it is the villain who is being punished by an act of onstage violence that, in all likelihood, elicited the audience’s cathartic satisfaction. For that matter, neither compassion nor pity is in any particular evidence for the many real-life victims of the period’s inquisitional and judicial torture. On the contrary, real public beheadings, burnings, hangings, quarterings, etc., continued to be a source of widespread holiday-making and merriment for centuries.

While it is not possible to recapture the “mentalities” of medieval audiences, it’s at least observable that the staggering cruelty of the period’s theater is of a kind with the cruelty of other popular pastimes that were being pursued simultaneously. The history of blood sports, for example, is a very long one. The public baiting, torture and killing of animals for pleasure was utterly commonplace for generations, as was betting on which of two fighting animals would kill the other. Common also was watching two men (or occasionally women) beat each other nearly to death — sometimes with cudgels or other weapons — for the entertainment of onlookers. Executions were such a treat that spectators made sure to hold young children aloft so they wouldn’t miss the sight of a man kicking and strangling at the end of a rope. In 18th century London, criminals like Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin were folk heroes in the Grub Street press. Sheppard had a number of plays written about him, while one of Turpin’s most celebrated crimes involved torturing an old woman (by burning her) to find out where she had hidden her valuables.

This tide of cruelty was to turn only with industrialism and the consequent transformation of traditional culture. Although modern popular culture is often charged with coarseness, and the effect of commercialism is often equated with degradation, cultural history suggests an entirely different conclusion. However coarse a given viewer, reader, or listener may find a particular modern artifact, the unavoidable fact is that modern culture has either eliminated or marginalized an entire world of cultural brutality that was dominant for millennia.

Yet there are already efforts to place Gibson’s “Passion” in a context of modern commercial exploitation.

“How might the intense emotional experience of seeing such brutality affect viewers — especially children and youth already immersed in violent ‘entertainment’?” asks a posting on one Christian Web site. “Will it further desensitize some to intense violence, build a craving for other emotional experiences, or alter the foundation for their faith?”

If such questions are legitimate today, they were even more legitimate 1,000 years ago. Then, the experience of intense violence was not feared as a potential threat to the foundation of one’s faith, it was assumed to be a part of it.

Article courtesy Featurewell.com.

+